On Oct. 25, 2016, two weeks before Election Day, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhen do problems with mail-in ballots become a problem for the media? Trump campaign official blames Biden lead on ‘skewed’ polls Trump’s Hail Mary passes won’t get him in the end zone MORE was in control to be the first woman elected president of the United States. On that same date, polls were casting a bright light in her favor. She was a sure thing, guaranteed to win. In the ensuing two weeks, the polls began to turn abruptly, and the winds keeping her campaign ship afloat shifted. As we all know, on Nov. 8, 2016, just two weeks later, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTwo ethics groups call on House to begin impeachment inquiry against Barr Trump relishes return to large rallies following COVID-19 diagnosis McGrath: McConnell ‘can’t get it done’ on COVID-19 relief MORE was elected president.
Fast forward four years. Can Donald Trump pull another victory out of the jaws of defeat and overcome significant obstacles fomented by social unrest, an economic downturn driven by COVID-19, and chaos on Capitol Hill? Will his COVID-19 infection serve as the motivator for his supporters to cast their ballots, or push people away from reelecting a president whose personal disregard of CDC recommendations created public health calamities? With over 9 millions votes already cast, many believed to be Democratic voters, including over 1.6 million in Florida, is a last minute Trump surge beyond reach?
National polls suggest that Trump is certain to lose the popular vote, by an even larger margin than he lost it in 2016. Blue states like California and New York guarantee this result. However, the election is won in the Electoral College, which Trump masterfully managed in 2016.
As we approach the final two weeks before the election, what are the key factors to look for that could lead to Trump regaining the White House?
First, traditional GOP strongholds like Texas, Georgia and Iowa need to move from GOP leanings to GOP highly likely. Trump has no hope of winning a second term without these reliable red states. He will likely win all three, but if polls for any one of them remain close in the final two weeks, Trump’s chance of reelection is effectively nil.
Second, polls in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina and Ohio must all move to have stronger leans towards Trump. Ohio is critical. The last sitting president to win the White House while losing Ohio was Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. These states all continue to remain steadfast toss-ups or Joe BidenJoe BidenMcConnell challenger dodges court packing question ‘Hamilton’ cast to reunite for Biden fundraiser Trump relishes return to large rallies following COVID-19 diagnosis MORE leans, which means that the outcomes in these states will be determined by which party can get their voters to show up and cast their ballots. These are all must-win states for Trump, while Biden can afford to lose one and still win the election.
Third, winning the Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania Rust Belt trifecta in 2020 is a pipe dream for Trump. The Electoral College math suggests that Trump cannot win if he loses all three. Winning any one of them will give him a path, albeit narrow one, to the White House. Winning two could seal the deal.
Fourth, Trump needs to capture a few surprise states. Any one of Arizona, Minnesota, Nevada or Colorado can make up for his losses in the Rust Belt states. Polls give him some life in Arizona, which he won in 2016. Trumps needs some help here to push him back over 270.
How likely are all such events to occur? Like flipping a fair coin, Trumps needs to get 10 heads in a row to win, something he managed in 2016. Can he do it again in 2020? The odds are long. Alan Lichtman, author of the Keys to the White House, agrees.
Although Biden is comfortably ahead in the polls, ballots cast and voter turnout in a handful of key states will determine who wins the White House. The Electoral College math suggests that a few thousands of votes flipped in a handful of key states can turn a Biden blowout into a narrow Trump triumph. With around 60 percent of eligible voters likely to cast a ballot in this year’s election, the margin between winning and losing is paper-thin, depending how this 60 percent is distributed across the key battleground states. A new president is likely, but in the final two weeks, is when it all happens.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based assessment to evaluate and inform public policy. He is the founder of Election Analytics at the University of Illinois, a STEM learning laboratory for election forecasting.