WASHINGTON - As the November 3 U.S. elections draw closer, opinion polls show presidential challenger Joe Biden is leading the incumbent, Donald Trump, by about 7 percentage points nationally.
Poll numbers are not a sure indicator of the outcome, as U.S. presidential elections are not determined by the popular vote but by electoral votes, which are allocated to the states in proportion to their populations. All but two thinly populated states award all their electoral votes to the popular-vote winner in that state.
Most states predictably support one party or the other, leaving a dozen or so “swing” states which may go either way and often determine the final result. A candidate needs 270 of 538 electoral votes to win.
Biden leads by a slimmer margin in the swing states — in cases by less than four percentage points, which may be within the margin of polling error.
President Trump hopes to repeat his 2016 victory by securing electoral college wins in critical battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which he won in 2016 by razor-thin margins.
Trump is still showing strength and not losing as badly in those Midwestern swing states as he is nationally, said Robert Griffin, research director for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group. “It's just a question about whether the national mood is going to be far enough apart between the swing states, those vital swing states in the Midwest, to really make a difference,” Griffin said.
Pennsylvania and Florida are must-win states for Trump, said Republican strategist Amanda Iovino of WPA Intelligence. Without those states it’s “very hard to see a clear path to victory for him,” she said.
Despite lagging poll numbers, Trump projects confidence on the campaign trail. “Could you imagine losing to this guy? Could you imagine?” he said at a Florida rally this week.
Whether Trump will win or lose will depend on how voters feel on these key issues:
Biden has sought to frame the election as a referendum on the president’s pandemic response, calling his downplaying of the coronavirus “reckless.”
Trump insists the country is “absolutely rounding the corner” on COVID-19, pointing to improved testing and decreasing fatality rates.
Trump accuses Democrats of wanting to unnecessarily prolong restrictions limiting business in order to sabotage economic recovery. “This election is a choice between a Trump boom and a Biden lockdown,” he said in his recent Arizona rally.
After promising and failing to deliver a vaccine before election day, Trump is touting therapeutics, urging supporters not to be afraid of the coronavirus because a “cure” would soon be available for “free,” including the drugs administered to him during his own COVID-19 illness in early October.
Biden has released his pandemic plan, which includes a national mandate on masks, contact tracing and the creation of a public health job corps.
"I'm not running on the false promise of being able to end this pandemic by flipping a switch,” Biden said Wednesday following a virtual meeting with public health experts in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. “But what I can promise you is this: We will start on day one doing the right things.”
With the country surpassing 9 million coronavirus cases and 229,000 deaths, polls show a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of COVID-19. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll in battleground states, 20 percent more respondents in Wisconsin say they trust Biden more than Trump on handling the pandemic. In Michigan, the gap was 14 points.
Trump has campaigned on the promise of returning the country to its pre-pandemic prosperity.
He highlights this week’s U.S. Department of Commerce data that shows a jump of 33.1% in the gross domestic product in the three-month period from July through September.
"You see the number today, 33.1 GDP, the biggest in the history of our country by almost triple, right, almost triple," Trump said at his Florida rally Thursday.
Biden dismisses the GDP surge as “not nearly enough” to get the country out of its “deep” COVID-19-induced recession.
GDP rose last quarter, but visits to food banks haven’t slowed, and poverty has grown. We’re on track for the worst economic downturn in over 70 years, and Donald Trump is on track to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to leave office with less jobs than when he came in.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) October 29, 2020
In the previous quarter the economy contracted at an annual revised rate of 31.4% and remains 3.5% smaller now than it was at the end of 2019.
In August, the Trump campaign released a list of economic priorities for a Trump second term. The list touts additional tax cuts, creating 10 million jobs in 10 months and creating 1 million small businesses.
Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic framework focuses on clean energy and domestic manufacturing. He aims to create 5 million new jobs by investing $400 billion into procurement and $300 billion into research and development for American companies.
Biden proposes a tax increase on wealthy Americans, a reversal of Trump’s tax breaks for corporations, and higher minimum wage and expanded benefits for low- and middle-income workers. Trump calls Biden’s plan part of a “socialist agenda” that will crush the middle class and cost millions of American jobs.
Racial justice movement
This week the city of Philadelphia was rocked by riots and looting after police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr, a Black man whose family said was suffering from a mental health crisis when he ignored officers' orders to drop his knife.
The unrest brought back issues concerning the use of force by law enforcement and broader systemic racism that has embroiled the country since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.
The president responded with his familiar law-and-order rhetoric aiming to win back suburban voters concerned about violence in cities by painting a bleak picture of racial unrest under a Biden administration.
“You can't let that go on. Again — a Democrat-run state, a Democrat-run city, Philadelphia,” Trump said, adding that Biden "doesn't want to condemn them.”
Biden has echoed calls from Wallace Jr.’s family to stop the violence. Following each crisis triggered by a police shooting, Biden has issued statements to decry violence by law enforcement, condemn the looting and rioting but uphold Americans’ right to peaceful protest. He has promised to study ways to prevent further police violence if elected.
Last pitch to voters
As more than 82 million Americans have already cast ballots in early voting, both candidates are making their closing arguments.
This week the Biden campaign launched an ad emphasizing “hope over fear, unity over division,” casting the election as an “opportunity to leave the dark, angry politics of the last four years behind us.”
The Trump campaign’s latest ad, titled “President Trump Will Uphold the Law,” begins with Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris superimposed over scenes of mayhem.
“While America's cities burn, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris fanned the flames, refusing to strongly condemn violence,” the ad says.
According to Republican strategist Whit Ayres of North Star Opinion Research, “The Biden closing argument is exactly what his opening argument was — that it's time to unite the country and give it a fresh start. The Trump campaign’s closing argument appears to be that Joe Biden and the Democrats will destroy your life.”
Both candidates are keeping up their busy campaign schedules in key battleground states on the last days before Tuesday’s election.