If the US Presidential Election were Held Today (Or Why Democrats Should be Beyond Worried)

Image of a ballot box.

Image by Elements Five Digital.

Polls are not predictors. They are merely snapshots of public opinion at a specific time. A lot can change between now and the November 2024 US presidential election. But if the election were held today Donald Trump would beat Joe Biden in the electoral college and perhaps in the popular vote.

There are many indications that Joe Biden is in deep trouble. National polls right now place him and Donald Trump in a tie, or with Trump with a slight lead. But ignore all national polls. We do not elect presidents either by national polls or a national popular vote. All that matters is the electoral college and the race to get 270 electoral votes.

But as I have written, not all fifty states are created equal. Because of partisan demographics, population sorting, and the fact that forty-eight out of fifty states allocate their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, only a few swing states matter. Within those few swing states perhaps only a few swing voters matter. Back in 2015, I argued that there were only three numbers that mattered—10/10/270. Ten percent of the voters in ten states would determine who would become president. The reality was three swing states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Michigan decided the election. Within those three states, shift 90,000 votes and Hilary Clinton would have been president.

Four years later, factoring swing counties into the equation, the equation was 10/10/7/270. Ten percent of the voters located in perhaps ten counties across seven states would decide the election. In 2020 the election came down to Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But had 43,000 more individuals voted for Trump in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, he would have won reelection.

Now four years later the numbers to look at may be 5/5/5/270. Five percent of the voters in five counties located in five states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—will decide the election, with Maricopa, Fulton, fill in,, fill in, and Door counties deciding who gets to 270.

How has the presidential race come down to this?

Let us assume that Joe Biden and Donald Trump are the presidential nominees in 2024. Assume that each of them wins all the same states they won in 2020, and that they again split the states of Maine and Nebraska the way they did in 2020. Assume also that Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are the only swing states in 2024. If the election were held today Trump would lead Biden in the electoral college 235 to 232. This number reflects a shift in electoral votes after the 2020 census that work to Trump’s benefit. This leaves the above five swing states totally 71 undecided electoral votes.

Polls right now in the five swing states show Biden leading in Michigan and Wisconsin (25 electoral votes) and Trump in the lead in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania (46 electoral votes). With the exception of Georgia where Trump according to the latest poll has a nine point lead, all the margins of victory are within the margin of error. This suggests that the races are really too close to call or could simply go either way.

Total up the safe states and swing states for each candidate. Trump wins with 281 electoral votes to Biden’s 257.

The picture is bleak for Biden. No sitting president has won re-election with approval ratings with what Biden now has. Incumbents do badly when the public senses the country is moving in the wrong direction or when they perceive the economy is doing badly. This is the case now in the polls.

The public is worried about Biden’s age. There is an enthusiasm gap comparing how Democrats feel about Biden compared to how Trump’s base feels about him. Generally undecided voters break against the incumbent when they perceive things going badly in the country.

Add it all up—Biden is in serious trouble.

Biden and Democrats are hoping abortion saves them like in 2022. Or that the Trump legal problems and possible convictions will save them. These are tough bets to make.

Four years ago many viewed Biden as a one term transitional president who would pass the mantle on to a new generation in 2024. He still needs to do that. There is a small window, perhaps just three to four months, that Biden has to decide to exit the race and leave room for another Democrat to emerge as the consensus candidate.

It is possible that Biden can still win. It is possible the polls are wrong or that they are not good predictors but simply snapshots in time. One year is a political eternity. Yet right now despite how bad a candidate Trump is with all his problems, there is no guarantee Biden can win in 2024 and instead a good chance he will lose.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.