The great talking point of US politics right now is whether the polls are tightening or not, and whether the consequence of a tightening – a second Trump term – is more likely than it was a week ago or a month ago. The thing is, the answer to those two questions are counterintuitive – there seems to be some tightening, but it doesn’t make Trump substantially more likely to win again.
Given it will come up in this conversation, yes the 538 model is much more bearish on Joe Biden’s chances than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean that his chances have gotten better in recent weeks – it just means that 538 believes that the race has been a lot closer for a while. It isn’t like the 538 model used to be in line with the forecasters consensus and then fell out of it, they’ve been consistent in their probabilities since the late-June date their forecast has been calculated back to. (On the broader question of whether they are right to have it that close, their reputation means they cannot be dismissed).
What about the polls themselves? Well, the data is mixed there, with IPSOS, YouGov, and Morning Consult showing minimal movement, if any at all, since the week where Biden peaked with dual 15 point leads (Quinnipiac and ABC/Washington Post), but Monmouth falling to a 10% lead from an early July 13 and Fox going from an 8% the week of that peak to a 7% now. On the state polling front, recent Monmouth efforts have shown a tighter environment in polls of Georgia and Iowa, but Quinnipiac polls of South Carolina, Kentucky, and Maine show no such tightening, and SurveyUSA polling of Georgia and Kansas are quite bad for the GOP.
On the question of whether the GOP are any closer to winning the election, Nate Silver is quite helpful. His estimates, at the launch of the model, say that Wisconsin is the tipping point state, and that a 1.9% Democratic lead nationally would be enough to win the state, down from the 2.8% it would have taken in 2016. In other words, Trump’s vaunted Electoral College advantage is now small enough that a Hillary Clinton margin of popular vote victory would be enough to win the Electoral College this time – at least, more often than not. A 2% Democratic lead is a ways away from the current high single digit averages, and even if there has been some recent movement, it is a lot easier to close a lead from ~11 to ~9, and incrementally harder to move it every unit after.
Could Trump make the election a genuine Tossup by election day? Doubtful, but then again there’s basketball in August and there was just a 5OT hockey game, so 2020 doesn’t care about what used to be likely. If the Trump campaign can settle on a message instead of wasting time on false claims about Kamala Harris’ citizenship, maybe they can pull it back to something like where 538 thinks this will end up – a 6% lead on Election Day for Biden, and a wide possibility for error making a Trump win a possibility. If COVID cases decline, if the NFL season goes off mostly without a hitch, if America is seen to be getting back to a form of normal, his chances go up more. Failure to get that sense of normal back, and his numbers are probably going to stay stagnant.
At the end of the day, Trump still has a chance of winning, but at some point he runs out of time to get the polls tight enough where he can actually win. Right now, they’re not tightening nearly fast enough to think he can pull it off. Is he still in the race? Absolutely. But nothing in the last couple of weeks of polling makes him substantially likelier to win than he was a month ago.
Evan Scrimshaw (@EScrimshaw) is Managing Editor and Head Of Content at LeanTossup.ca and a contributor to Decision Desk HQ.