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State of the race: Here's why the electoral college map may be looking good for Joe Biden right now

Trump is on the defensive in the states that won him the presidency in 2016.

democratic-national-convention-day-4 Joe and Jill Biden at the Democratic National Convention. Source: DPA/PA Images

THE US PRESIDENTIAL election is starting to feel a lot more real, with just over two months left until the big day on November 3. 

The two conventions are done and dusted and the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden will be held a month from today. 

It means we’re very much in the meat of a contest that has been overshadowed by Covid-19. But with the contest now approaching, it feels like a good time to take stock of what the two candidates need to do to win the presidency.

Before we get into that, here’s a quick refresher on the electoral college system that elects the president.

Simply put, each US state is given a specific number of ‘electors’ and it is those electoral votes that actually elect a president. 

There are a total of 538 electoral votes across all of the states, with states each given a certain number of votes roughly in line with the size of their population.

With a population of 39.5 million, California has 55 electoral votes, while Montana – population one million – has only three.

Except for Maine and Nebraska – which distribute electors through proportional systems — candidates earn electoral votes in each state on a winner-take-all basis.

This means that in nearly all cases, a candidate will get all of a state’s electoral college votes regardless of whether they win a state by one percentage point or ten. 

This is crucial because it means there is a lot riding on so-called ‘toss up’ or ‘battleground’ states.

It is also how someone can win the majority of votes across the whole country and still lose the election, as happened to Democrats Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000. 

Source: TED-Ed/YouTube

With 538 electoral college votes up for grabs, the number needed to win the presidency is 270. It means that if a candidate can win any combination of states with more than 270 votes collectively they win the presidency. 

In the last presidential election, Trump won 306 electoral college votes to Clinton’s 232.

Acknowledging that most states are neither battleground states and that they are winner-take-all, we can assume most of the results ahead of time and focus on the close races. 

That is where the presidency is won and lost and it is what pollsters and campaigners will look to first. It is also what you should be paying particular attention to. 

To use 2016 as an example, take the three midwestern states of Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20) and Michigan (16).

If those three states voted for Clinton and not Trump their combined 46 electoral college votes would have put her in the White House and not her opponent.  

So what does this mean for Biden and Trump? 

To gauge how the race is looking right now, let’s take a look at those three states and at three others that Trump won in 2016 that will also be crucial for his re-election chances. 

The three others we’ll look at are Florida (29), Arizona (11) and North Carolina (15).

president-donald-trump-attends-the-third-night-of-the-republican-national-convention President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the Republican convention. Source: PA Images

The first two are important because, even if Trump was to hold on to the three midwestern states above, he’d still lose the presidency if Biden managed to wrench Florida and Arizona away from him. 

So how are the polls looking in these states?

Well, with the caveats that the election is still some time away and that Trump’s numbers were underestimated in 2016, polling indicates that Biden appears to be winning in all of these states.  

Polling carried out by CNBC/Change Research show Biden leading from between one to five percentage points in those states. 

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If those polls were to translate into results and every other state stayed the same from 2016, Biden would cruise to victory with 331 electoral college votes. 

If we talk about those six states exclusively, we can play around with different result combinations to see how the overall result would change if they flip between the parties. 

For example, if Biden were to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona, he’d win the presidency.

As mentioned above, Biden would win if he flipped Florida and Arizona alone, but he’d also win if he flipped Pennsylvania and Florida.  

On current polling, it’s looking like he’ll win the six battleground states, not just the two above he needs. 

Of course these possibilities are on the basis of Biden’s numbers in the polls holding, and with three debates to come and arguments over postal voting ongoing, there is much that can change. 

What’s clear though is that Trump has a smaller margin of error than his opponent and that he is playing on the defensive in some of the states that previously won him the presidency. 

Trump will need more to go right for him than wrong when the votes are counted, that’s what happened in 2016 but it remains to be seen whether the trick can be repeated. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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