Election 2020 Scenarios

Some thoughts on voter enthusiasm and EV scenarios.

My most fundamental prediction about the 2020 presidential contest is that former Vice President Joe Biden will win more votes than the sitting President, Donald J. Trump. Indeed, I think it quite likely that Biden will win an absolute majority of the popular voter (that is, over 50% thereof).

Under a rational electoral system, that would make this a very short post.

However, as James Joyner noted earlier today, the 538 model gives Donald Trump a 10% chance to win the Electoral College (it gives Trump a 3% chance of winning the popular vote and 2% chance of winning an absolute majority).

The Economist‘s model gives Trump a 4% chance of winning the Electoral College and a less than 1% chance to win the most votes (it does not provide odds of a plurality win v. an absolute majority win).

Granted, there are considerations outside of polls, including the pandemic’s effect on voter behavior, the complexities of massive mail-in voting this cycle, and the Republican strategy of using legal challenges to suppress the vote.

If we had a rational (and national) system of elections administration (like most countries, yes including federal ones) we wouldn’t have to be as worried about such things.

Likewise, if one of the two parties wasn’t dedicated to the notion that counting less ballots is in their favor, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

It is worth noting that despite both a pandemic and the Republican allergy to democracy, we are going to see potentially record turnout this cycle. And the empirical evidence suggests that that turnout is driven by a desire to replace the current occupant of the White House.

First, Trump’s approval ratings hardly suggest that voting in his favor is motivating turnout. It is logical to assume that consistent sub-50% approval is driving anti-Trump turnout, not the other ways around.

Second, while Gallup shows in a poll in early October that voters in both parties are enthusiastic, but note this stat (emphasis mine):

Enthusiasm about voting has increased substantially among both major party groups since 2016, with 80% of Democrats and 75% Republicans saying they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting this year.

In fact, both party groups are more enthusiastic than they have been in any of the past four elections, although Republicans’ enthusiasm is similar to that recorded in September 2004 while Democrats’ exceeds the previous high (68% in 2008) by 12 percentage points.

To be clear: this is saying that Democrats are more enthusiastic about voting Trump out than they were in voting in the first Black president.

The write-up does have this caveat:

Gallup’s enthusiasm measure has not been a strong predictor of turnout, historically, but it may relate to how positively Republicans and Democrats feel about their respective candidates, including their chance of winning.

Third, 538 has the following piece: Americans Say They’re Fired Up To Vote — Especially Democrats.

It starts with a more recent Gallup poll, which includes another interesting comparative stat:

According to the latest Gallup poll, released this morning, 69 percent of registered voters say that they are more enthusiastic to vote this year compared to previous elections. That is a stark contrast to the 2016 election, when enthusiasm to vote was relatively low.

Here’s the chart and note 2020 v. 2016 (which is the electorate as a whole):

So, Trump squeaked a popular vote/electoral vote inversion in 2016 with low voter enthusiasm (not surprising, given that both he and HRC were historically disliked candidates). Do we really think that substantially higher voter enthusiasm is going to redound to his favor?

All of this is to say that turnout is going to be high and a primary motivator of that turnout appears to be anti-Trump sentiment, but we should also recognize that an overwhelming percentage of Republicans likewise are enthusiatic about their vote.

But, what about EC scenarios?

I think this is Trump’s only winning scenario: holding on to all his 2016 states except MI and WI.

The above does not strike me an probable (I guess it is somewhere between 4% and 10% likely).

By the way, if you want a crazy scenario, the above map plus a flip of AZ produces:

This would be the most on-brand 2020 outcome. Still, 538 puts an EC tie at less than 1%.

If I had to lay money on a map (not that I am), it would be this one:

Note that this is a conservative, hedged map as the polling suggests a good chance of GA and FL going Biden and OH and IA are also real possibilities. If the turnout and and enthusiasm is what it appears to be, a blue wave may well be in the making.

I don’t trust Florida, even though Biden is ahead there (I have no good political science reason, just experiences watching that state in 2000, 2016, and 2018).

I will be watching Georgia carefully, but think that the Senate races may keep the state red.

Texas is a wildcard to me. The force of history plus things like already trying to throw out 100,000 votes in Harris county makes me think pushing the state blue is not going to happen. Regardless, I don’t think Texas will be pivotal, electoral vote-wise (if Biden wins Texas, I suspect he will have won GA, FL, and IA and maybe even OH and in other places).

Texas matters in the sense that if it goes blue it will cause utter panic in the GOP, as it will destroy their Electoral College advantage in a way that no other result could. It could lead to a rethinking of primary rules in 2024 and to a host of self-evaluation that a closer loss may not. I am not saying that such a re-evaluation will necessarily lead to a moderation of the party (although I think it could). Such a loss would really cut against the notion that a narrow appeal like Trump’s can keep the party in power, even with all of the advantages the system affords Republicans.

A map like this would require a serious need for the GOP to go back to the drawing board:

Florida they would dismiss as swing state. Losing Arizona or Georgia would be seriously concerning, but losing Texas would be terrifying.

The time for speculation is almost to an end.

If you haven’t voted yet, good luck on Tuesday!

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Losing Texas would tear the heart out of the GOP. It would be their own, personal 911. Next would be losing Georgia.

    If they lose Texas and Florida it will mean that the GOP has not won a single major state, they wouldn’t have a state over 7 million population, and nothing at all outside the deep south and mountain west. At that point I know they’re stupid, but a blind man could see they were finished without a complete overhaul and rebranding.

    Turn Texas blue and the GOP is finished as a national party.

  2. charon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    At that point I know they’re stupid, but a blind man could see they were finished without a complete overhaul and rebranding.

    The yahoo behavior we see documented on the other threads confirms what I already think:

    Na ga hoppen. Too many factions into cultish behavior and conservative media bubble fantasizing, cults just double down in adversity.

  3. charon says:

    The force of history plus things like already trying to throw out 100,000 votes in Harris county makes me think pushing the state blue is not going to happen.

    The implication of that is they are worried.

  4. Jax says:

    I see Daily Express has Donald Trump winning in an electoral college AND popular vote landslide, and of COURSE Red State, Breitbart, and PowerLine have all picked it up. (eyeroll)

    I sincerely hope that we all wake up Wednesday morning with Biden at 400, and the popular vote by tens of millions.

  5. Paine says:

    The weather is nice and my scooter is back from the shop so thought it would be fun to ride around town counting Biden and Trump signs.

    To set the stage, I live in a small town – about 3000 people – in rural eastern WA, close to the Idaho border. Counting yard signs and flags, including those at private businesses, I counted 22 Trump signs and 4 Biden signs. I did see both a blue Bernie sign and a Black Lives Matter sign without a Biden sign so will assume they are shy Biden supporters. OTOH, I saw a pretty good number of signs in support of our Republican gubernatorial candidate without a Trump sign, so I will assume they are shy Trump supporters.

    The results were a bit more one-sided than I had hoped. I thought when I got to the more modern and upscale neighborhoods I’d see more Biden support but they turned out to be pretty Trumpian as well. I was happy to see one Grab Him by the Ballot Biden/Harris flag, though.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    @Jax: the Daily Express is notorious for its posting wishful thinking articles, isn’t it? I’ve been keeping an eye on their Brexit articles and they get more and more delusional.

  7. JohnSF says:

    Let’s just say the Daily Express are trying to appeal to an audience who are closer to the mean than the mode, sorta’ thing.

  8. Jax says:

    @JohnSF: I will admit that I’m looking forward to the gut punch the true Trump believer will feel when he loses.

    Because he HAS to lose, right?!

  9. DrDaveT says:


    I sincerely hope that we all wake up Wednesday morning with Biden at 400, and the popular vote by tens of millions.

    I do too. But I don’t expect the hardcore Trump supporters to accept that at face value, and admit that they lost.

  10. Jax says:

    @DrDaveT: It might be a watershed moment for them, where they realize the Electoral College is bullshit….(channeling my inner Dr. Steven Taylor, here…)

    Yeah, you’re right, they’re still gonna show up with guns and hurt innocent people, much like Typhoid Donnie and his super-spreader events.


Speak Your Mind