President Donald Trump, left, speaks during the final presidential debate with former Vice President Joe Biden in Nashville, Tennessee. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
President Donald Trump, left, speaks during the final presidential debate with former Vice President Joe Biden in Nashville, Tennessee. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

US election: 5 crucial questions for the week and a half ahead

By The Washington Post Time of article published Oct 24, 2020

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By Aaron Blake

The final 2020 presidential debate is officially in the books, which means we're now in the home stretch of the campaign. With 10 days to go, as of Saturday morning, the race appears to be Joe Biden's to lose.

But as 2016 showed, the closing days of a campaign can be a feast of the unexpected. It was about at this point, for instance, that then-FBI Director James Comey injected a late disclosure about Hillary Clinton's emails that Democrats to this day (rightly or wrongly) blame for her loss.

Given the stage we now find ourselves in, it's worth a reset. Below are some key questions for the week and a half ahead.

1. Are the polls off - and by enough?

This is the biggest question of all - not necessarily because of how likely it is, but because of how necessary it is for the result to be in doubt.

President Donald Trump's deficit, which is about eight to 10 points in national polling averages, is without precedent in the 21st century. The last time a candidate was trailing by this much this late, in fact, was in the 1980s. There were no surprises back then, but what about now?

A few things: The first is that the polls can be off, especially in key states where methods are less refined, surveys less frequent and voters more unpredictable. But as The Washington Post's Philip Bump wrote earlier this month, they'd need to be even more wrong than in 2016, by virtue of Trump's larger deficit. What's more, the polls were arguably even more flawed in 2012, but in the opposite direction. We don't really talk about that because the shift was toward a bigger win for the expected winner (Barack Obama) rather than swinging the race, but it's still significant.

So surprises are clearly possible.

The second point is that we're holding this election in circumstances with no precedent in the past 100 years. The continued coronavirus pandemic has pushed more voters (many more of them Democratic-leaning ones) to mail-in voting. When it comes to in-person voting on Election Day, though, it stands to reason that voters who haven't already voted could tilt more Republican, by virtue of their lower level of concern about the virus.

There's also the fact that, whatever advantage Democrats might glean from early voting (which we'll get to shortly), there are issues about how promptly mail-in votes will be delivered by overburdened mail carriers and about ongoing legal issues surrounding how strict the rules will be for accepting them, including if they arrive after Election Day.

Will it be nearly enough to change the outcome? It seems doubtful. But surprises do happen, and everyone needs to anticipate the unexpected in the current climate.

2. How much does early voting help Democrats?

What has become abundantly clear in recent days is that, whatever happens from here on out, Democrats probably have built an unprecedented early advantage in the votes cast before Election Day - both via mail and in-person early voting.

According to early voting data collected by The Post, turnout in most states has already eclipsed the final early-voting tallies in 2016, and in several states, early-voting turnout is already more than half of total 2016 turnout. In Texas, 71 percent of all ballots cast in 2016 have been cast in 2020. In North Carolina, 56 percent. In Georgia, 55 percent. In Florida, 50 percent. And that's just the competitive states.

Data nationally and in some of these states indicate that these early votes have a significant and in some cases very strong Democratic lean, given that Democrats have embraced mail-in voting much more than Republicans. In North Carolina, the ballots cast are 42 percent Democratic and 29 percent Republican. In Florida, the Democrats' edge is 44 percent to 35 percent. In Arizona, it's 41 percent to 35 percent. In Iowa, it's 51 percent to 31 percent, according to data from the United States Election Project. And in Pennsylvania, it's a stunning 71 percent to 20 percent.

Early turnout is also especially striking amount young voters, who commonly vote at lower levels and may be unregistered with a party, but lean significantly toward Democrats when voting.

There is a school of thought that early voting doesn't necessarily favor one party over another - that often voters who take advantage of it would otherwise be very likely to vote on Election Day. What we've seen from these numbers, though, suggests record turnout ahead. And higher turnout generally favors Democrats, given that people who are infrequent voters tend to tilt toward the Democrats. (Trump has warned about higher turnout from mail-in voting making it impossible for Republicans to win elections.)

And again, unprecedented circumstances leading to unprecedented results.

3. Are there even enough votes for Trump to win over?

One very important way in which the 2020 election is different from Trump's come-from-behind win in 2016 is this: Fewer voters are up for grabs.

Trump made his comeback four years ago in large part because he won over voters who were undecided or flirting with third-party candidates. The RealClearPolitics polling average at this point had Clinton ahead 44.9 percent to 41 percent when third-party candidates were included and 47.2 percent to 42.5 percent they were excluded. That's as much as 14 percent of voters who hadn't fully committed to either major-party candidate who could be swayed in the final days.

By contrast, Biden's edge today in the RCP average is 50.8 percent to 42.8 percent when third-party candidates are included and about the same - 50.7 percent to 42.8 percent - when they are excluded. That leaves only about 6 percent of voters who are truly up for grabs.

Trump in 2016 won late-deciding voters by double digits in all the key states decided by about one point or less: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But apparently fewer of them are even available this time. His surprising win owed in part to flawed polls, but also to these late deciders, and there are apparently far fewer of them this time to help him overcome an even bigger polling deficit.

4. Can Trump overcome Biden's huge likability edge?

And to the extent that these voters are available, are they actually going to go with the incumbent? That's a major question for one big reason: Biden is nowhere near Clinton's unpopularity.

Another big reason Trump won in 2016 was that voters who disliked both candidates tilted strongly toward him - and they were a significant chunk of the electorate, about one in five nationally.

One of the undersold aspects of the 2020 race is that Biden is nowhere near Clinton's level of unpopularity, which by Election Day 2016 rivaled Trump's. And in fact, he actually has become more popular as the race has worn on - something that would've seemed pretty inconceivable early on and especially in our current political climate.

Is it possible that enough voters are available to change the race, especially if the polls are wrong? Sure. But unlike in 2016, many of them will also need to be voting for a candidate they dislike over a candidate they like.

5. How decisive is it?

This one is more about the aftermath than the actual result, but it's increasingly relevant as we head into the final days.

Trump has made it clear that he's raring to go when it comes to questioning the legitimacy of the election - particularly when it comes to mail-in votes, which he has baselessly claimed are prone to widespread fraud. He has gone so far as to also baselessly claim that there's no way he can lose without such fraud.

Trump made similar allegations in 2016, possibly setting the stage to be a thorn in the side of a President-elect Clinton if he lost.

The question is why he's doing it now and how much it takes hold. Does Trump truly just believe this stuff, or is he looking for a way to explain his loss and rally a movement around him after the election? There are even suggestions that he might resist leaving office, which he has fomented by declining to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Democrats want to win, first and foremost. But Trump's comments have created a premium on Biden winning decisively and erasing virtually any doubt - however ill-founded - about the legitimacy of his win. It's an impossibly ugly and regrettable situation, but it has real implications for how the country will move forward and just how much Trump's movement might matter in the months and years after the election.

And if Biden truly is the favorite that he appears to be, it may be the most significant question come next month.

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