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Election in sight: It all depends whether you believe your eyes

Biden has the advantage, but Trump will say otherwise

ANALYSIS — The choice is as clear as it gets. Do you believe President Donald Trump or your eyes?

The president and his defenders (e.g., Jason Miller and Corey Lewandowski) insist he has momentum in key battleground states. They believe great enthusiasm for the president, combined with strong Election Day turnout, will help the GOP hold virtually all of the crucial states that Trump won in 2016, plus an additional state or two. (Nevada? Minnesota?)

I suppose it’s possible that all of the polls are wrong, even though they’re conducted by various survey research firms and publications using different methodologies. To see Trump winning, you must believe that only a handful of Republican pollsters have figured out the magic formula for gathering public opinion.

One problem is that even if the national polls understate Trump’s performance by a couple of points as they did four years ago, he is much further behind now than he was as the 2016 campaign closed.

For example, the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 2016 (conducted Nov. 3-5, 2016) showed Hillary Clinton ahead by 4 or 5 points, depending on whether you included the names and parties of the Libertarian and Green nominees in the question. She ended up winning the popular vote by just over 2 points.

This cycle, the final NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Joe Biden leading by 10 points, a much larger gap.

Clearly, the issue agenda favors Biden.

An Oct. 27-29 Fox News poll showed only 21 percent of respondents saying the coronavirus was “completely” or “mostly” under control, while 51 percent said it was “not at all” under control.

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The same survey found Trump (49 percent) and Biden (48 percent) virtually tied on who would do a better job on the economy, while Biden had a large 56 percent to 40 percent advantage on being better able to handle the coronavirus.

In other words, Trump’s messaging on the economy has been ineffective, while his assertions about the virus have been dismissed by likely voters.

What’s different?

We have many more state polls this cycle — and we are paying more attention to them — than we did in 2016. That means we have a better handle of where the state races stand, and Biden is at or over the 50-percent mark in many states, while Trump sits in the low to mid-40s.

Sure, there are some states where all the polls don’t line up. Florida, for example, is too close to call. But don’t get caught swallowing former George W. Bush political adviser Karl Rove’s argument on “Fox News Sunday” that races have been tightening dramatically in the last week.

What Rove doesn’t say is that the “averages” he was comparing on camera included a few polls that are not highly regarded. For example, the Arizona average on Sunday (Nov. 1) included surveys from the Trafalgar Group, Rasmussen Reports and Susquehanna Polling & Research, all of which tend to produce an unusual number of outliers that favor Republicans.

So what’s a better way to look at Arizona? An Oct. 1-3 New York Times/Siena College poll showed Biden leading by 8 points in the state, 49 percent to 41 percent. But a more recent Oct. 26-30 Times/Siena poll showed Biden leading by 6 points, 49 percent to 43 percent.

That 2-point difference could constitute “movement,” but it’s more likely merely a reflection of the margin of error of surveys.

2016 anxiety

The news media, of course, is in full “what if” mode. They continue to worry about another 2016, when Trump was an underdog but won the presidency by putting together very narrow wins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

But 2020 isn’t 2016. Nor was 2018, when a suburban revolt showed how voters had changed and offered Democrats a roadmap to winning this year.

Polls have shown Trump getting slaughtered with college-educated whites and seniors compared to 2016. He is leaking support from most other groups, though he remains popular with white evangelicals, rural voters, whites without a college degree and conservatives.

Trump may be making small gains among Hispanics, but those gains are likely to be offset by Democratic gains among younger voters and other nonwhites.

But what if millions of whites without a college degree turn out on Election Day? What if Latinos leave Biden in Florida, Texas and Arizona? What happens if Trump wins Minnesota? What happens if Pennsylvania tightens? What happens if Biden wastes millions of additional votes in California and New York? What happens if the courts throw out ballots? What happens if state legislatures controlled by Republicans ignore the voters?

I’m sure you can think of more scenarios of gloom and doom than I can, since I’m not trying very hard. I’d simply say that everything is possible, but not everything is equally likely.

Trump must win all the close states, including many where he is clearly behind. That’s a challenge after four contentious years and months of a deadly virus weakening him politically.

Frankly, 2020 simply doesn’t look at all like 2004, 2000, 1976 or 1960.  It looks more like 1980, with the political parties reversed.

The Senate, on the other hand, looks more competitive, though the Democrats have plenty of paths to at least 50 seats (and a net gain of at least three seats). Still, if you are a Republican or a Democrat who absolutely must have something to worry about, worry about the Senate.

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