It’s Coming Down To Maps, Again…

Blank 2020 electoral map, courtesy of Because nothing’s been decided yet.

When I look at an electoral map right now, what I see is Pennsylvania and Florida.

Last time around, taking out a map and looking at it a week or two before Election Day is what convinced me Trump had a real shot at winning. My focus then zoomed in on the Midwest, including states that hadn’t traditionally been won by Republicans. And that Trump’s “America First” message might resonate with angry voters and lead him to a march across those states, which by-and-large he did.

For that reason, I drove to Pennsylvania during the last week of the campaign and volunteered for Hillary Clinton. Partly because it was the nearest swing state, but also because it still seemed winnable for Clinton. Immediately, when I crossed the border from New Jersey, didn’t have a good feeling about that. Because all of a sudden I saw endless Trump signs sprung up in yards, in highway medians, everyplace. Almost no Clinton ones. And I know, pollsters don’t consider yard signs to be reliable indicators. And I understand: Trump voters are always going to be noisier, whether it’s vocally or decoratively. At the same time anybody who takes the time and trouble to put up a yard sign is 100% going to get out and vote. But still…

Even the Clinton field office in which I was based was ringed outside by Trump signs. Although Clinton did win Reading, which is where I volunteered, she didn’t win the the state.

The view from Clinton campaign Reading, PA HQ 2016

This time because of COVID-19, I’m not in Pennsylvania, so can’t tell you what it looks like on the ground there even anecdotally.

But that state is even more in focus for me. Those Midwestern states: Michigan, Wisconsin, don’t seem as much of a probable lock for Trump as they did back then, despite what the polls were showing.

The main reason I didn’t believe the polls back then, is I did believe there’d be a sizable number of “secret” Trump voters. People who would never publicly admit voting for him, but would anyway. We’ll get back to that in a second.

By the time I looked squarely at the Midwest last time, I’d already figured Hillary was going to lose Florida even though she seemed to be ahead there. Republicans always seem to edge out Democratic opponents in Florida. Always seems to break that way even when elections there are very close. Even when—Bush vs. Gore—it’s a virtual tie. This even happened in the Midterms two years ago: Republicans narrowly prevailed in the most significant contests, amidst a big “blue wave” almost everywhere else.

So Pennsylvania and Florida. Here’s why:

  • If Trump loses both, he’s pretty much finished.
  • If Trump wins one and loses one, it’ll still be very hard to make up the ground elsewhere.
  • If Trump wins both, Biden still has ways to win. But they would involve prevailing in states that at that point would probably be even bigger long-shots, or he might even have to pull off an upset somewhere.

Right now, Trump’s trending better in Florida. Biden’s up in most Pennsylvania polls.

And presumably pollsters this time around have made adjustments and fixes to the way they gather and process information to make up for being off pretty consistently in many places last time. To the point where one might start thinking chances are, if anything, they’re more likely being too conservative about Biden’s chances this time.

And there may even be a magnifying effect to that: at least a few people I know who never would’ve bothered themselves with voting before, and thus would not be considered by a pollster to be a “likely voter”, are likely going to vote in this election, or already have. And are not voting for Trump. The reason they hadn’t previously voted is not because they’re protesting anything; just because they’re self-centered and don’t see how government affects them. (If you know such a person, don’t be afraid to contact them now or soon, because sometimes they’re still going to need a little push.)

At the same time I still don’t really know how polls work in this day and age. Especially those that rely on in-person interviews on the phone. For the simple reason that I never pick answer calls these days if I don’t recognize who’s calling, and don’t think a lot of people do. So who are they talking to? I’m not doubting their methodology, I just don’t quite get how it’d work anymore. Then again, I’ve never lived in a swing state, so maybe it’s clearer to people in those states who are getting asked for their opinions all the time.

On top of that, I’ve seen multiple interviews with pollsters who completely dismiss the concept of that “secret” Trump voter being a significant factor at all. And argue that group doesn’t and never really existed, and was not what accounted for the polls being off last time. 

Where that concerns us the most is that most every poll is showing one of Biden’s biggest sources of strength, and Trump’s biggest new sources of weakness is suburban women. But that group of voters truly did not come through for Hillary last time. So if they are going to be the final surge that votes out “crazy”, great. And can easily see where that might be the case. At the same time, not sure I’ll really believe it until I see it.

At the same time, I do believe there could be some people who  are “secret” Biden voters in this election. Most likely people who are in heavily Trump-supporting families, but are just tired of all the lunacy.

So honestly, this time around I don’t know what conclusions to draw. Except that if Trump wins both Florida and Pennsylvania, those will be very strong foundations on which to build.

At the same time—and seems like I’m saying that a lot in this story—if the turnout among first time voters and young people and just generally higher percentages of the public voting overall continues at the rate we’ve been seeing, it’ll be increasingly hard for Trump to bridge that gap.

So don’t get discouraged. Keep it up. If there’s one thing you take away from this story it shouldn’t be that Trump may be stronger than he appears. It’s that the idea of a comfortable Biden victory is not cuckoo crazy. 

But people have to vote. So if existential dread about another Trump term is what gets you out to vote, great. If unbridled enthusiasm is what gets you out to vote, that’s great too. And wear your mask.

Correction: In the special edition last evening about the U.S. Supreme Court Ruling on Pennsylvania, we incorrectly said the decision was 6-3, when new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate; so it was 5-3. Also, the link to Justice Alito’s statement did not work. Hopefully it will here.