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The 3 most likely paths to victory for Biden and Trump, in maps

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/30/2020 Aaron Blake
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The presidential election is just days away. We probably won’t know who won on the night of Nov. 3, thanks to an increase in mail-in ballots. But we know enough about the polls and the fundamentals to get a good sense of how things might play out.

Below are three scenarios that work out in President Trump’s favor and three in former vice president Joe Biden’s favor. Given that polling shows Biden is the clear favorite, let’s start with the ones that would deliver a surprise: a Trump win.

How Trump wins

1. Florida, Florida, Florida (+ Southern states + a little more)

Presenting: Trump’s most logical path to victory.

I know we’ve been here before, but Florida is very clearly emerging as the most pivotal state in this presidential election — thanks both to its 29 electoral votes (second only among the swing states to Texas) and to its consistent razor-thin margins (it has been decided by about 1 percentage point in many recent elections and is a virtual tie right now).

One of the big new developments in the 2020 race is the competitiveness of some red states in the southern half of the country. Democrats have high hopes that their efforts to at last turn Arizona, Georgia and Texas blue could arrive sooner than expected. But what if it’s a bust? And what if Trump holds all of them and nips Florida?

Here’s how that would set up, with other close races undecided, based using 270 To Win maps:

map: Trump wins Florida © Screenshot/270 to Win Trump wins Florida

Were Trump to win Florida and hold his 2016 ground across the southern half of the country, Democrats’ path to victory would be significantly narrowed, though hardly prohibitive. From there, if Trump also holds the two closely polling Midwestern states he won by eight-plus points in 2016 (Iowa and Ohio), adding just Michigan or Pennsylvania alone would deliver Trump a win. Adding Minnesota or Wisconsin alone would also put him at 269 electoral college votes — enough for a tie.

Here’s what that would look like adding just Iowa, Ohio and the 2016 tipping point state that is currently polling the closest, Pennsylvania, going for Trump:

map: Trump adds Iowa and Ohio to Florida © Screenshot/270 to Win Trump adds Iowa and Ohio to Florida

It bears emphasizing: Democrats lead in the RealClearPolitics polling averages in almost all of the states in the undecided column on this map, including Michigan and Pennsylvania (Iowa and Ohio are pretty pure toss-ups). But losing Florida and other Southern states that have been red in recent years would mean Democrats can’t avoid too many big surprises in other states. And Pennsylvania is polling closely enough to make things interesting.

2. Trump over-performs in the Midwest/Rust Belt — again

What if the southern part of the country is in doubt, but Trump sweeps the key states further north?

Trump has focused his late-campaign push on the states that delivered him the presidency — specifically, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which were decided by less than a point in 2016.

The polls in these states aren’t generally as close as in 2016 this time around. That’s particularly the case in Michigan (Biden +8.6), but the overall polls in Pennsylvania are somewhat close (Biden +3.5), as are some high-quality polls in Wisconsin (Biden +6.4).

So what if Trump somehow sweeps these three states again, along with nearby Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio? Here’s what the map would look like:

map: Trump Midwest/Rust Belt sweep © Screenshot/270 to win Trump Midwest/Rust Belt sweep

In this scenario, Trump could seal the win by getting the next 10 electoral votes via many different methods, including:

  • Winning Florida (29 electoral votes)
  • Winning previously red states Arizona (11) or North Carolina (15)
  • Some combination of Nevada, New Hampshire, Maine and Nebraska’s 2nd district (where the winner gets one electoral vote)

Even if Michigan is out of reach, here’s what it would look like:

map: Trump wins Midwest/Rust Belt minus Michigan © Screenshot/270 to Win Trump wins Midwest/Rust Belt minus Michigan

From there, Trump could win by just adding Florida or Arizona and North Carolina.

Were Trump to win these three all-important states again — which is a big “if,” yes — he would have significantly more paths to victory than Biden. Winning even two of them would also greatly improve his lot. The polling misses of 2016 might not be replicable, especially given pollsters have refined their methods and we have more quality polls in these states than we did then, but it’s worth considering the possibility.

3. The polls wind up being off

Picking up on the above, let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the surprises aren’t relegated to those states. What if the polls wind up being off universally by five points? What if there’s something to the shy-Trump-voter theory (of which I and many others who analyze elections are skeptical). Or what if there were a significant shift in the final days for one reason for another? Where would that leave us?

A pretty close race — and quite possibly a Trump win.

Here’s how that five-point shift would look, based upon current polling averages:

map: A universal five-point polling shift © Screenshot/270 to Win A universal five-point polling shift

The above map is particularly remarkable when you consider Biden’s average lead in the national polls stands around seven points. Even if you universally shift the polls less than that, you approach or even enter a scenario in which Trump wins.

In fact, that’s also the case if you shift things just four points across-the-board (in this scenario, Minnesota and Nevada turn blue):

map: 4 points shift © Screenshot/270 to Win 4 points shift

And now, for the more likely scenarios in which Biden wins.

How Biden wins

1. Just holding his ground

As the above item demonstrates, Biden basically just needs to hold the states in which he’s showing a significant lead.

Even if you shift the polls universally by three points — still less than his national lead but a significant shift across the board — Pennsylvania remains in his column, and he wins:

map: A universal three-point shift A universal three-point shift

This, as with the Florida scenario for Trump, is the most logical and direct path to victory — though in Biden’s case, it doesn’t require picking off states in which he currently trails.

2. Florida, Florida Florida (again)

And now for how Florida could even more convincingly turn things in Biden’s favor.

Were he to win it and also hold the closer blue states from 2016 (including Minnesota, Nevada and New Hampshire), he’d already be at 262 electoral votes:

map: Biden wins Florida and holds blue ground © Screenshot/270 to Win Biden wins Florida and holds blue ground

From that point, Biden would have to win only one other bigger, close state: Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.

It certainly reinforces how truly pivotal Florida is. Trump winning it gives him hope; Biden winning it makes it pretty difficult for him to lose.

3. Picking off a prize

None of the above maps contemplates a few things that could well happen but would have been pretty unthinkable even four years ago: a Democrat winning Arizona, Georgia or Texas. But all three states are polling very closely. It’s Biden +2.2 in Arizona, tied in Georgia and Trump +2.6 in Texas. So what if Biden pulls off a win in one or more of them?

Texas’s 38 electoral votes would be all but decisive, putting Biden at 249 electoral votes, even if you give him only the other electoral votes that seem very likely to be in his column, including Colorado (which Democrats won by five points in both 2012 and 2016):

map: Biden wins Texas © Screenshot/270 to Win Biden wins Texas

From there, he would need only 21 out of 163 electoral votes — about 13 percent of the remaining total.

Georgia would be another big pull — especially since it also might suggest a Biden win in neighboring North Carolina (and possibly even Florida). Here’s what would happen if Biden took the first two southeastern states:

map: Biden wins Georgia and North Carolina © Screenshot/270 to Win Biden wins Georgia and North Carolina

At that point, Biden would need 28 out of the remaining 170 electoral votes — about 16 percent. Adding Florida would seal the deal, but there are many other paths, too.

And finally, Arizona. As with Georgia, it’s somewhat tough to see Biden winning Arizona but not a neighboring state, Nevada, which also has a significant Mormon population. So let’s, for argument’s sake, put both in his column:

map: Biden wins Arizona and Nevada © Screenshot/270 to Win Biden wins Arizona and Nevada

These give Biden less of an obvious edge in the race than the Georgia/North Carolina or Texas scenarios, given they are smaller electoral-vote prizes, and they come in a region with fewer similar states that might also tip in his favor. But even here, Biden would need to win only 42 of the remaining 184 electoral votes — about 23 percent. Trump could hold all the three Southern states that tilt Republican — Georgia, North Carolina and Texas — and Biden would still have a slight edge, with Florida undecided.

It would be the least favorable big flip of a traditionally red state for Biden, but still a big one. And the math, as with most of these scenarios, is easier for him — though hardly prohibitive for Trump.

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