As it happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and to Al Gore in 2000, Joe Biden could win millions of votes more than his opponent and still not take the White House, writes Dick Roche.
Dick Roche is a former Irish Minister for the environment, heritage & local government, the department that is responsible for elections in Ireland.
All of the indicators point to a record turnout in the US Presidential election. High turnout traditionally favours the Democrats. In spite of a low energy campaign, Joe Biden is well ahead of Trump in both national and state polls. Polls also show that Biden is significantly more popular than Hillary Clinton was as the 2016 election entered the final week.
In addition, Joe Biden has made inroads into demographic groups that were critical to Trump in 2016. White women who backed Trump over Clinton have shifted. In the 2018 midterms this key voting group broke evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
Recent polling shows that women voters have switched to Biden by 16 points. The Trump campaign efforts to win back support by promising to “save suburbia” have not resonated.
Polls also show that Trump’s support amongst voters in the 65+ group has been undermined by his handling of COVID-19. A fall in support from older voters could be particularly damaging for Trump in Florida, a must-win state.
The demographic trends are not completely against Trump. He is holding support amongst males generally, has made inroads amongst college-educated males and has gained ground amongst non-white males – a point that evidently irks Joe Biden as he demonstrated in an exchange during a campaign event.
Overall polling suggests that Biden will do significantly better than Clinton did in 2016 when she beat Trump by 3 million votes. However, as happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and to Al Gore in 2000 Joe Biden could win millions of votes more than his opponent and not take the White House.
The next President of the US will be decided on 14 December when the US Electoral College meets. The College, a constitutional anachronism, consists of 538 Electors. Each state is allocated Electors on the basis of its representation in Congress.
With two exceptions, states allocate their votes in the College on a winner take all basis. A candidate needs to win 270 votes to be elected President.
In 2016 Trump won the Presidency by beating Clinton in ten key states. In three of the ten, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, he won by margins of less than 1 per cent. Those paper-thin margins delivered 46 Electoral College votes and the keys to the White House.
If his luck holds out – big time – Donald Trump could squeak over the 270 line and be re-elected. There are a number of narrow pathways open for him to do that.
If Trump holds Texas, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia plus either Pennsylvania or Michigan, states that he won in 2016 while holding traditional Republican states he is re-elected.
Even if he losses both Pennsylvania and Michigan but wins either Nevada and Wisconsin or Nevada and Minnesota states he can still hold the White House. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 while Clinton won Nevada and Minnesota by narrow margins.
Trump could also reach the critical 270 threshold while losing Pennsylvania and Michigan by retaining Wisconsin and the single vote he won in Maine’s Second District in 2016.
The path to victory for Biden is far less complex. If he wins Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and everything else remains as in 2016, he will have 278 votes and the Presidency. If loses all three states but takes Florida and Arizona he will still exceed the 270 threshold.
On 30 October Biden was ahead in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average polls in nine of the twelve states mentioned by margins ranging from 0.8 points in Georgia up to 6.5 points in Michigan. Trump held a narrow, 0.6 point lead in Ohio, a 2.3 point lead in Texas and Iowa was tied.
While Joe Biden is stronger in the polls than Clinton was at the end of October 2016, the factors that threw the pollsters in that election are still in play.
In 2016 pollsters underestimated Trump support amongst blue-collar workers, “shy-Trumpers” and right-leaning voters. In an America where civil political discourse seems to have been parked circumspection towards pollsters, amongst conservative voters, is still in play likely overstating Biden’s polling lead.
The dramatic shift from traditional in-person voting is also likely to impact on polling and on the election itself.
It is widely predicted that there will be a record voter turnout in this election. Changes made in the last few months allow 75% of US voters to use vote-by-mail (VBM). Tens of millions of voters are availing of that option.
Because vote-by-mail is more complex than in-person voting it produces many more rejected votes. With tens of millions voting by mail in the election, estimates suggest that one million mail-in votes could be rejected.
How that level of rejection impacts on polling is hard to say. Its impact on the election itself could be critical.
Heavy rejection rates of VBM ballots in battleground states will impact most heavily on Biden. Democrat supporters are more disposed to using VBM and key cohorts of its supporters are more susceptible to voter error with VBM.
Concerns about that level of vote rejection have prompted Democrat-led administrations in some states to adjust their requirements for certifying in mail ballots, changes which Republicans see altering rules while the game is in play.
Since the beginning of October, the US Supreme Court decided three cases relating to such changes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. All three related to the cut off date by which VBM votes could be counted. Changes in Pennsylvania and North Carolina were allowed. The proposals in Wisconsin were struck down.
Processing tens of millions of mail-in ballots will delay results this year. If early results do not point to a clear-cut winner the switch to in-mail ballots will become the focus of a bare-knuckle fight.
In battleground states, every vote cast by mail will be scrutinised and every error challenged, one side will scream “fraud” the other “voter suppression”, automatic recounts will be triggered in some states and multiple bitter court cases will follow.
In 2000 the certification of votes in four counties in Florida determined the Presidency. This time out, contested results across battleground states being determined by a Supreme Court that is itself the focus of controversy have the capacity to produce a full-blown constitutional crisis.
The best election result for American democracy would be a clear and decisive victory in the Electoral College that is possible but not certain.