Biden's path to winning the Electoral College runs through the Midwest

He's polling just short of Trump in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

May 15, 2024, 2:27 PM

With 174 days — fewer than six months — left until Election Day, we're now within the window where general-election polling has some predictive value — although it is still subject to plenty of change. And according to 538's newly released polling averages, former President Donald Trump narrowly leads President Joe Biden, 41.2 percent to 40.5 percent, in national polls (as of Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. Eastern).

But as any election analyst worth their salt will tell you, we elect the president via the Electoral College, not the popular vote. And in the last couple presidential elections, the Electoral College has benefited Republicans. In 2020, Biden won the national popular vote by 4.5 percentage points, but he won Wisconsin — the state that tipped him over the 270 electoral votes he needed to win — by only 0.6 points (representing a 3.9-point Electoral College bias toward Trump). And in 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 points, but she lost the tipping-point state, again Wisconsin, by 0.8 points — a 2.9-point Electoral College bias.

Based on those numbers, you might assume that Trump's national polling lead means Biden is a significant underdog to win the Electoral College. But according to our state-level polling averages, that's not necessarily true. While he's trailing in the most competitive states, Biden remains within striking distance of Trump in states with just enough electoral votes to hand him the presidency.

Seven states are generally considered to be competitive this fall, and when you look at our polling averages of each of them, six of them fall into two clean categories: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Biden trails Trump by less than 2 points; and Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina, where Trump leads by a more comfortable 6- or 7-point margin. (Arizona, at Trump+3.5, is somewhere in the middle.)

Obviously, if those turn out to be the final margins in November, Trump would win every swing state and the presidency. But the numbers also point to a narrow but feasible path for Biden to win. If he carries Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, plus every other state and district* that he won by at least 6 points in 2020, he would finish with exactly 270 electoral votes:**

That's well within the realm of possibility. To reach that threshold, Biden would just need to gain 2 points in our polling averages of those three states between now and November, which is not a very big lift. Plus, it's within the margin of reasonable polling error; even polls on the eve of the election have an average error of 4 points in presidential elections. Ultimately, state-level polls 174 days before the election have historically missed the final vote margin by about 8 points. So while Trump leads the presidential race right now, that lead is not safe.

After so much was made in 2016 and 2020 about Democrats' eroding support in the Midwest and their emergence in the Sun Belt, it's interesting that the polls so clearly indicate that Biden's best path to victory runs through the old "blue wall" states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But it probably shouldn't be too surprising. States don't march consistently and inevitably in one direction over time; historically, they're just as likely to revert to the mean. And Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have much more of a history of voting Democratic than Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina do. (Nevada is the exception here — it has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 2008.)

Biden's weakness in the Sun Belt also isn't too surprising given his widely publicized struggles with voters of color; the Sun Belt states are much more racially diverse than the three northern states where Biden is still competitive.

At the same time, Democrats should face no illusions about the task ahead of them. Winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will require Biden to proactively improve in the polls (or hope that they are wrong — and generally you don't want to leave your campaign up to fate!), something he has struggled to do so far this year. This path also leaves the campaign no margin for error: If Biden loses just one of those three states, he'd need to carry one or more of the more challenging Sun Belt states to make up for it.

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And there's one further wrinkle: Getting to 270 electoral votes via Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would also require Biden to win the electoral vote from Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, which Biden won by only 6 points in 2020, according to Daily Kos Elections. Polls of Nebraska's 2nd District are scarce, but the one we do have suggests that Trump is leading there right now.

And if Trump wins Nebraska's 2nd while Biden wins Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the Electoral College would be tied 269-269. Under the Constitution, that would throw the election to the House of Representatives, where each state's delegation (not each representative) would get one vote, with 26 out of 50 votes needed to elect the president. Trump would very likely win under such a scenario because Republicans will probably control a majority of congressional delegations after the election, even if they don't have an overall House majority.

The House hasn't needed to step in to decide the presidential election since 1824, but the way the electoral map is shaping up, there is a nonzero chance it could happen this year.

Footnotes

*Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes by congressional district — which, as I'll get to, could prove important this year.

**That means Pennsylvania, where Trump leads the polls by an average of 1.7 points, is — for now — positioned as the tipping-point state in the election. With Trump currently leading in national polls by a similar 1.0-point margin, that means polls suggest that the pro-Republican bias in the Electoral College has shrunk significantly from 2016 and 2020. (Of course, this could change.)

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