US election 2020: Where are the swing states and what are the polls predicting?

3 November 2020, 19:32

Tomorrow the US will know who has won the election
Tomorrow the US will know who has won the election. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

Democratic candidate Joe Biden heads into the 2020 US presidential election as favourite to beat Republican President Donald Trump - but what do the polls say and what are swing states predicting?

But while Biden has enjoyed a comfortable lead in nationwide opinion polls for several months, his lead in some of the key battleground states is much smaller.

He goes into the final day of the Presidential campaign with an eight-point lead in the national polls, but Donald Trump says he predicts an unstoppable "great red wave" of republican support.

Read more: Trump criticises FBI over Biden battle bus investigation

Read more: Which are the key swing states?

Polls are snapshots, not predictions, and the outcome of the election could come down to how well the parties manage to get their supporters to turn out and vote.

Both sides will remember what happened in 2016, when opinion polls suggested Hillary Clinton was heading for victory - only for Trump to end up the winner.

Read more: What is the electoral college and how does it work?

Read more: Trump and Biden clash over Covid, race and foreign funds

Five scenarios for what could happen this year

1. A rerun of 2016

The polls are wrong again. Joe Biden fails to get enough support in states that Donald Trump won narrowly in 2016 - places like Pennsylvania and Michigan - while losing badly in longshots like North Carolina and Georgia. Were no states to change hands, the result would be a repeat of four years ago, with Joe Biden winning 232 electoral votes and Donald Trump 306.

(A total of 270 electoral votes are needed to win the US presidential election. Each state is allotted a fixed number of electoral votes, based roughly on the size of its population. Whoever wins the popular vote in a state also wins all of that state's electoral votes - with two exceptions being Maine and Nebraska, which divide up their electoral votes partly based on who wins the popular vote.)

2. Biden falls short

In this scenario Joe Biden gains a couple of extra states, but doesn't pick up quite enough electoral votes to make it to 270. For example, winning Michigan (worth 16 electoral votes) and Wisconsin (10) would increase Biden's tally from 232 to 258: 12 short of the winning line. Donald Trump's tally would fall from 306 to 280, but he'd still be safely above the 270 mark. Trump can therefore afford to lose one or two states to his opponent, but no more than that.

3. Narrow win for Biden

Gaining just three states - the former 'blue wall' of Michigan (16 votes), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10) - would be enough to put Joe Biden above 270, taking his tally from 232 to 278. Alternatively Biden need only pick up Florida (29 votes) and Arizona (11) to also be over the 270 mark. Or he could go for a mix of northern and southern states, for example Pennsylvania and Florida. Biden has a number of paths to reach the magic number of 270, though a narrow victory could be more likely to invite legal challenges - justified or otherwise - from Trump.

4. A landslide for Biden

If the polls turn out to be not just snapshots but accurate predictions, and are even understating Joe Biden's popularity, then Biden could be heading for seven or even eight gains from Donald Trump. An example of a landslide win would be if Biden picks up Arizona (11 votes), Florida (29), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10): a total of 119 additional electoral votes, leaving him with a grand total of 351 compared with Trump's 187. By way of a comparison, in 2008 Barack Obama won 365 votes to John McCain's 173.

5. A tie

This is possible. Were Joe Biden to pick up Michigan (16 votes), Pennsylvania (20) and one of Maine's four electoral votes, both he and Donald Trump would be tied on 269 electoral votes. Similarly, if Biden gained Michigan (16) plus Wisconsin (10) plus Arizona (11), both he and Trump would end up with 269 each. In this situation, the newly-elected House of Representatives would choose the president, with each state delegation having one vote. A majority of states (26) would be needed to win.

What are the polls predicting?

National presidential poll

Biden is leading the national polls with 50% to Trump's 44%.

He has been ahead of Donald Trump in most national polls since the start of the year, and has hovered around 50% in recent months and at one point had a 10-point lead on the incumbent.

Other polls

Biden holds anywhere between a four and 10 percentage point lead across a series of polls released on Monday.

The poll aggregator fivethirtyeight.com shows Biden with an 8.4-point advantage overall, while Real Clear Politics reflects a lead of 6.7.

However, Trump has a stronger showing in some important battleground states.

In Florida, the largest of the handful of crucial swing states, Biden leads by just 1.7 points, according to an average of polls.

And a final poll from Reuters/Ipsos on Monday afternoon also had Biden very narrowly leading Trump in Florida and in a dead heat in North Carolina and Arizona.

Trump must also retain Florida and its 29 electoral college votes if he is to stand any chance of reaching the winning figure of 270, according to leading analysts.

In Pennsylvania, which offers 20 electoral votes, Biden holds an average 2.5-point advantage, according to Real Clear Politics.

In Michigan, with 16 votes, his lead is 4.8 points, and in Wisconsin, which has 10 votes, it is 6.6 points.

As the polls show, the election result depends on several key swing states, some of which have played crucial roles in past elections.

Here are eight swing states to watch. All were won by President Trump in 2016, but all are being strongly contested at this election by Mr Biden.

- Florida

This is the most hotly-contested swing state of them all. Florida has been a nailbiter in almost every presidential election since 1992, most famously in 2000 when George W Bush won the state by just 537 votes out of a total of six million cast.

Support for both Republican and Democrats is finely balanced, with just one percentage point separating Barack Obama from Mitt Romney in 2012, and Mr Trump from Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Both of this year's candidates will be desperate to pick up Florida's 29 electoral votes - the biggest number for any of the swing states - though the arithmetic is probably on Mr Biden's side. He has a number of ways to reach the 270 winning post, with or without Florida, while for President Trump this is pretty much a must-win state.

- Pennsylvania

President Trump turned Pennsylvania into a swing state in 2016, confounding those who assumed this was a Democratic stronghold, as had been the case since Bill Clinton won the state in 1992.

With 20 electoral votes up for grabs, this is key target for both Mr Trump and Mr Biden. It is Mr Biden's home state - he was born in the city of Scranton - and he has enjoyed a small but steady lead in Pennsylvania's polls for several months. In 2016, President Trump's margin of victory over Ms Clinton was just 0.7% of the vote.

- Michigan

Like Pennsylvania, this was part of the "blue wall" of states that voted Democrat at every presidential election from 1992 to 2012.

President Trump's victory in 2016 was tiny - by just 0.2% of the vote - but symbolised the scale of his success in wooing working-class voters away from Ms Clinton, particularly in a state that Mr Obama had carried by nine percentage points in 2012.

There are 16 electoral votes in play here. Polls have put Mr Biden consistently ahead of President Trump for the past few months.

- Wisconsin

Another "blue wall" state that President Trump won narrowly in 2016. As is the case with Pennsylvania and Michigan, the result in Wisconsin might not be clear for several days, thanks to the volume of postal and early votes that will need to be sorted and counted.

This could mean that the overall winner of the election is not known for some time - though both candidates might try and mount legal challenges to pause, extend or even halt the counting. Ten electoral votes are available here.

- Ohio

Since 1964, whoever has won Ohio has gone on to become president - the longest uninterrupted streak of any of the "bellwether" states.

In 2016, President Trump enjoyed a comfortable victory over Ms Clinton by eight percentage points. In 2020 the polls suggest the race is too close to call.

It is another state with a sizeable chunk of electoral votes up for grabs - 18 - but as with Florida, a win here is probably more crucial for President Trump than Mr Biden in terms of making it to the winning post.

- Arizona

The reason Mr Biden has more paths to the White House than President Trump is thanks to states like Arizona.

No Democrat has won Arizona since Mr Clinton in 1996, and in 2016 President Trump beat Ms Clinton here by five percentage points.

But this year, Mr Biden has turned it into a swing state, reflected in a run of opinion polls that have put him either ahead of or level with President Trump.

Arizona does not offer as many electoral votes as other swing states - 11 - but they could be vital for Mr Biden's chances were he to lose in places like Florida.

- North Carolina

This is another state in play this year thanks to a strong showing by Mr Biden. Mr Obama won North Carolina in 2008 - the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Mr Obama lost the state in 2012, however, as did Ms Clinton in 2016. This year polls suggest Biden could nudge the state and its 15 electoral votes back into the Democratic column, though the result - as at recent elections - could be very close.

North Carolina and Florida are the two swing states most likely to report prompt results on election night, and as such will give an early indication of how both Mr Biden and President Trump are faring.

- Georgia

No Democrat has won Georgia since Mr Clinton in 1992. Mr Obama never came close, and President Trump won it by a comfortable six percentage points in 2016.

Yet in 2020 Georgia, with its 16 electoral votes, has become the most unexpected swing state of them all. Mr Biden has steadily closed the gap on President Trump in the polls, eventually drawing level and occasionally pulling ahead.

Wins for Mr Biden in places like Georgia and North Carolina would knock out states that are vital for President Trump's re-election.

But remember opinion polls are only snapshots, not predictions, and ultimately the outcome in places like Georgia may come down to which side manages to get more of its supporters to turn out and vote.

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