On Tuesday, voters will go to the polls and conclude an election that has already seen unprecedented turnout, with approximately a hundred million people casting early ballots. Several states have nearly matched their total turnout numbers from the last Presidential election through early voting alone; Texas and Hawaii have already exceeded their 2016 figures. The people who have participated in early voting are more likely to be Democrats, whereas Republicans are more likely to show up on Election Day, in large part because of President Trump’s unsubstantiated attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in voting.
The polls currently show the President losing to Joe Biden by eight and a half percentage points nationally. The Electoral College could still hand Trump a victory, but he remains significantly behind in the crucial Midwestern states that he won four years ago, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, is trailing slightly in Southern states, like North Carolina and Florida and even Georgia, and is tied or barely ahead in places like Ohio, Iowa, and Texas, where Democrats had not been expected to be nearly so competitive. The state most likely to tip the election is Pennsylvania, where Biden is leading by around five percentage points. Biden could lose the state and still win the election by winning Florida or even Arizona; for Trump, the math becomes nearly impossible if he loses Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, or Ohio.
I recently discussed the state of the race with Dave Wasserman, a contributor to NBC News and the U.S. House editor of the Cook Political Report. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the meaning of the early vote, whether Democrats have raised too much money for their Senate candidates, and why Pennsylvania is the Midwestern state that Democrats should worry about.
A hundred million votes have been cast, but many political analysts are shying away from making bold pronouncements about what the early vote portends. What do you feel comfortable saying about its significance?
It aligns with predictions for record-shattering turnout. I think we could be on track for a hundred and fifty million to a hundred and sixty million votes cast. A hundred and sixty million might not even be the upper limit. But certainly, far higher than the hundred and thirty-seven million cast in 2016. We are seeing steadily huge surges in Sun Belt exurbs. Texas has led the way by already surpassing its 2016 votes cast, and then some. And, look, a high-turnout scenario has always held promise for Democrats in the Sun Belt and some promise for Republicans—to a less clear extent—in the Rust Belt. So, this cycle, I have tried to lean into that change and that realignment. The biggest mystery to me right now is whether we will see the Sun Belt red wall crumble or crack.
Can you explain why high turnout might help Democrats in the Sun Belt and Republicans in the Rust Belt?
Historically, the untapped potential in Texas and Georgia has been young and nonwhite votes. And those new voters don’t exactly have a high opinion of Trump, even if they do not identify as Democrats per se. Whereas in the North—and Nate Cohn laid this out in good detail, more than a year ago—most of the unrealized potential for higher turnout would be non-college-educated whites. In 2016, there were 2.4 million non-college whites in Pennsylvania who were eligible but did not cast ballots. Trump won the state by 44,292 votes. In Michigan, there were about 1.6 million non-college whites who did not cast ballots. And Trump won by about ten thousand. In Wisconsin, there were about nine hundred thousand non-college whites who did not cast ballots. And Trump won by about twenty-three thousand.
So there has never been a doubt that Trump could add hundreds of thousands of new non-college white voters in those states. And none of the serious data junkies out there have ever doubted that Trump’s rally crowds include a number of people who didn’t vote in 2016. The problem for Trump is that he isn’t winning a high enough share of non-college whites in these states, particularly women and seniors. And, on top of that, non-college whites have declined as a share of the eligible electorate by three points since 2016. So he not only needs to bring out more of them to offset their population decline, but he needs to get back to his 2016 margins among that group. And for every non-college white woman or senior who defects to Biden, Trump needs to bring out two new voters to offset that.
Does the early-turnout data suggest anything about these groups already showing up?
The early-turnout data can tell us that there is historic interest, and we are headed for a massive turnout scenario. It can’t tell us anything about the final vote preferences of the final electorate, and anyone who claims that they can tell you who is going to win or by how much based on early turnout data is a charlatan. I am just going to be blunt about it.
Democrats are more concerned about Pennsylvania than about Wisconsin and Michigan, and the polls have been a hair closer there. What about Pennsylvania, or the candidates, explains that?
It is not clear to me that Biden will end up doing that much worse in Pennsylvania than he does in Michigan or Wisconsin or Minnesota. We don’t know that. But the final polls seem to suggest it, and the strongest theory I can muster is, first, that the COVID-19 caseload in Pennsylvania isn’t what it is in Wisconsin right now. But, second of all, Pennsylvania has a higher share of non-college whites who did not vote in 2016. So it has always had more growth potential for Trump than Wisconsin, which has traditionally had very robust voter turnout, or Michigan.
Wisconsin is also a state that Obama won by a bigger margin than Pennsylvania. Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary to Clinton in 2008 but won in Wisconsin. Trump lost the 2016 primary to Cruz in Wisconsin but won in Pennsylvania. So there might be reasons to think Pennsylvania would be stronger for Trump than Wisconsin or Michigan.
Yeah, that’s all true. Trump potentially has a stronger cultural connection in Pennsylvania than in Michigan or Wisconsin. Keep in mind that the places where we are seeing Trump underperform include considerable church-going areas, such as Grand Rapids, Michigan. There is an Appalachian vote in Pennsylvania that is a big portion of the state, and Trump’s die-hard base is located in places like southwestern and northeastern Pennsylvania. And, to some extent, in the Iron Range of Minnesota, that’s true, too. But it’s hard to point to one region of Wisconsin where Trump has that same connection—maybe western and northern Wisconsin, but the Milwaukee suburbs and Green Bay have never been Trump-fanatic zones.
Florida had been considered the most likely Southern Trump state to flip to Biden, in part because of Biden’s strength with senior voters. But my sense of talking to people in both Democratic and Republican politics recently is that North Carolina or Georgia may actually be easier for Biden. Do you agree, and what have you made of Georgia’s growing prominence these past two weeks?
I wouldn’t be surprised by any win-loss combination out of North Carolina-Georgia-Florida-Texas at this point. The gap is quite small, in my estimation. I should be clear: I do not put Arizona in that category. I think he is a strong favorite to win Arizona, but not a clear favorite in the other four Sun Belt targets. What’s fascinating to me is that Trump won Florida by a point. He won North Carolina by 3.7. He won Georgia by 5.1. And he won Texas by 9.0. But, since 2016, all four have moved away from Trump, to the point where they are all arguably in the same place.
And it has to do with the demographic characteristics of the state. There aren’t as many white, professional, suburban defectors to Biden in Florida as there are in suburban Atlanta, suburban Charlotte, and certainly suburban Texas. Florida offers Trump a special lifeline because of the Cuban vote and his improvement since 2016. Without that, Biden would be a clear favorite to flip the state.
But what we are seeing in the northern Atlanta suburbs is that Trump has become radioactive there, much as he has in the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. North Carolina is somewhere between Florida and the other two, because it is still more of a small-town, rural state than Texas. You can add up Dallas and Houston and San Antonio and Austin and have more than two-thirds of the state’s votes. You can’t say the same thing about the North Carolina triangle and Charlotte.
Texas has seen an astonishingly large early vote, even though neither campaign has thrown a lot of money into it. Do you think the Biden campaign, which was able to raise and spend significantly more money than Trump in the final weeks, erred in not going all in there?