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America Decides: Trump and Biden’s pathways to 270

By Laura Catterson, Hottinger & Co

We are a week out from the US presidential election and focus is on the electoral college.

When Americans cast their ballots for the US president, they are actually voting for a representative of that candidate’s party, known as an elector. Each state has a different number of electors based on the number of congressional districts they have plus two additional votes representing the state’s senate seats.[i] There are 538 electors up for grabs with 270 needed to win the presidency.

Figure 1: How Biden and Trump are doing in the polls as at 26th October 2020. Source: FT[ii]
Most news outlets are positing that Biden is favourite with national and state polling showing that he has more pathways to 270 electoral votes than Trump.[iii] For Trump to clinch a second term, he will need to win a number of states where Biden is currently leading. These so called, “swing states”, are where the election is really decided.

If Biden wins these swing states with a considerable margin, he will be able to brush off any attempt by Republicans who challenge the results. However, if the margin is much closer, expect recounts, legal challenges, and a tense few days, weeks or even months. Thus, the electoral college map, and math, are very important.

There are fourteen states and two congressional districts which both campaigns are paying very close attention to. They can be grouped as follows:

The six swing states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina

To understand the importance of these states, you need look no further than a recent NPR news report which shows that the Biden campaign and supporting groups have spent almost 90% of their money there, while Trump and Republican organisations have spent 78 cents of every dollar across the six.[iv] They hold such weight during each election due to their relatively even political divide, size and voting history. President Barack Obama won Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida in 2012 however, so did President Trump in 2016. North Carolina voted for Obama in 2008 but went Republican in 2012 and 2016. Arizona has notoriously voted Republican for decades and yet has been trending Democratic in recent years. Even a small victory in any of these swing states can have a huge impact on the overall result. In 2016, Trump won all six, three of which by less than a percentage point.

Florida (29 Electoral Votes [EVs]) and North Carolina (15EVs) are notoriously red-leaning however, Biden is currently leading in both,[v] albeit by a very small marginal average of one to three points.[vi] Michigan (16EVs) and Wisconsin (10EVs) typically turn blue and this year they appear to be following suit with Biden enjoying average nine[vii] and seven[viii] point leads respectively. Pennsylvania (20EVs) and Arizona (11EVs) are in the middle, yet Biden also leads both states with five[ix] and three[x] point advantages.

If these polls come to fruition, Biden looks set to win the presidency. If the race tightens, the margins in these six states are crucial.

Across all six, 101 electoral votes are on offer; of which Biden needs 38 – assuming all other states that typically vote Democrat do so. Following the same logic, Trump needs 66. Trump must win Florida and three others to reach this number. Biden, however, could reach 38 by winning Florida and just one of the other five states. Even if Biden loses Florida, he could also secure victory by winning Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The two swing congressional districts: Nebraska’s second district and Maine’s second district

Maine and Nebraska diverge from tradition by allotting some of their electoral votes to the winners in each congressional district rather than the state-wide winner. Realistically, one of Maine’s two districts is safe for Democrats, and two out of Nebraska’s three districts are safe for Republicans. The remaining district in each state — Maine’s Second District (1EV) and Nebraska’s Second District (1EV) — is up for grabs. Crucially, these districts will only come into play if the race is neck and neck. One such scenario is if Biden wins Michigan and Pennsylvania while Trump takes Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona. As it stands, Biden leads by two[xi] points in Maine’s second district and seven points in Nebraska’s second district.[xii]

The states Trump is trying to defend: Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and Texas

Within these four states, Biden hopes for an upset. He is trying to win the traditional swing states of Ohio (18EVs) and Iowa (6EVs), both of which went with Obama twice but voted heavily for Trump in 2016. Current polling shows the candidates are pretty much tied[xiii] in each state.[xiv]

Texas (38EVs) and Georgia (16s) on the other hand, have not voted Democrat in decades. The margins, however, are shrinking. Trump is narrowly ahead in Georgia[xv] and on average three points up in Texas.[xvi] It would indicate a massive upset should these states flip.

The states Biden is trying to defend: Nevada, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Maine

Not to be taken for granted by the Democrats are Nevada, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Maine. Polling in Nevada and Minnesota shows Biden up by seven[xvii] and six[xviii] points respectively. Although Trump could make up some ground here, they are less likely to be as decisive as the main six swing states, hence there is some understandable optimism in the Democratic camp.

New Hampshire (4EVs) and Maine (2EVs) are far less competitive with polls showing Biden in double digits[xix] for both.[xx]

President Trump’s paths to 270 electoral votes are far more limited than Biden’s. As it stands, Trump’s prospects depend on late and fundamental shifts in the dynamics of the race. With both debates over and no consequential shift in the polls, re-election is looking tough. President Trump has proved himself however, as a candidate not to be underestimated. This race is far from decided and all eyes will be on the electoral map come 3rd November.


*Please note all polling stats were accurate at the time of writing.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2020/oct/24/electoral-college-explained-biden-uphill-battle-us-election

[ii] https://ig.ft.com/us-election-2020/

[iii] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/10/25/politics/paths-to-270-analysis/index.html

[iv] https://www.npr.org/2020/09/15/912663101/biden-is-outspending-trump-on-tv-and-just-6-states-are-the-focus-of-the-campaign

[v] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/nc/north_carolina_trump_vs_biden-6744.html

[vi] https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/president-general/north-carolina/

[vii] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/mi/michigan_trump_vs_biden-6761.html

[viii] https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/president-general/wisconsin/

[ix] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/pa/pennsylvania_trump_vs_biden-6861.html

[x] https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/president-general/arizona/

[xi] https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/president-general/maine/2/

[xii] https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/president-general/nebraska/2/

[xiii] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/oh/ohio_trump_vs_biden-6765.html

[xiv] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/ia/iowa_trump_vs_biden-6787.html

[xv] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/ga/georgia_trump_vs_biden-6974.html

[xvi] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/tx/texas_trump_vs_biden-6818.html

[xvii] https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/president-general/nevada/

[xviii] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/mn/minnesota_trump_vs_biden-6966.html

[xix] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/nh/new_hampshire_trump_vs_biden-6779.html

[xx] https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/president-general/maine/



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