Everything you need to know about the US election: the polls, the issues, the swing states

Everything you need to know about the November 3rd contest between Trump and Biden

With just over seven weeks to go before the US presidential election, all eyes are turning stateside as Donald Trump seeks a second term in the White House and Democratic candidate Joe Biden campaigns to become America's 46th president.

As the race enters its final stretch, polls show that Biden is ahead, both nationally, and in swing states that typically determine the outcome of the election. An analysis of recent polls by election tracking website Real Clear Politics shows the Democratic candidate leading Trump by 6.9 per cent. However, this lead falls to 3.7 per cent in key “battleground states”.

Worryingly for the Biden campaign, the former vice president’s lead has tightened over the summer, including in electorally important states such as Pennsylvania. If past trends are anything to go by, this margin is likely to tighten further before election day – a disconcerting reality for the Biden campaign.

Of course, the experience of 2016 has diminished people's trust in polling. Trump's surprise victory stunned the political establishment and left many pollsters and journalists red-faced, given their expectation that Hillary Clinton would win.


In fact, many polling companies defended their models in the postmortem that accompanied 2016. The respected website fivethirtyeight.com argued that its forecast gave Trump a 29 per cent chance of winning the electoral college system in the week leading up to election day – in other words, there was always a statistical possibility that he would win.

Putting aside the real-world impact polls can have on voting behaviour – there is much evidence to suggest that many voters who were lukewarm about Clinton did not vote on election day because they assumed she would win easily – the experience of 2016 has placed new focus on the reliability and methodology of polling.

There are indications that, four years on, polling companies have learned from their mistakes. For example, polls undertaken in swing states did not adjust their samples for education levels, with the result that voters with a third-level degree were over-represented in key polls.

Others point out that 2020 is different because there are fewer swing voters. Instead the electorate is more polarised. Trump, who has focused on appealing to his core base of supporters rather than expanding his support base during his term in office, is one of the most divisive presidents in history. The fact that the polls barely moved after last month’s party conventions, suggests that most voters have made up their mind. This contrasts with 2016 when many voters in swing states broke for Trump in the final week of the campaign.

Nonetheless, the coming weeks are likely to be a closely-fought contest – not least due to concerns that Trump could dispute the outcome of the election, particularly if postal voting increases due to coronavirus, as expected. The three scheduled presidential debates may also sway public opinion. These are some of the key themes that are likely to shape the political dynamic in the next seven weeks.

1. Coronavirus

The virus has had a devastating impact in the United States, where 190,000 people have died. While the Biden campaign has focused on Trump’s mismanagement of the virus, there are fears among some Democrats that coronavirus-fatigue may have set in by November, particularly if infection rates continue to fall.

However, this week's revelations by veteran journalist Bob Woodward that Trump deliberately played down the seriousness of the virus in February and March could seriously damage the president.

Trump is also pushing for a vaccine to be ready before election day, though this seems unlikely.

2. Law and order

The Trump campaign has been working hard to shift the focus onto crime and policing in the wake of the social unrest that accompanied the mostly peaceful George Floyd protests this summer. In a campaign ploy reminiscent of Richard Nixon in 1968, Trump has warned that citizens will not be safe in an America run by Democrats.

While the issue of police reform is a tricky one for Biden and running-mate Kamala Harris – both have been accused by progressives of flipflopping on criminal justice reform – there is no evidence that Trump's tactic is working in suburban areas. Instead, most Americans disapprove of Trump's response to the George Floyd protests.

3. Economy

With the United States only just emerging from lockdown, the economic impact of the virus has been immense. Traditionally, Republican candidates perform better on economic issues, though Biden has emphasised that Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic has made the economic situation worse, declaring this week in Michigan that 4.7 million jobs had been lost since Trump took office.

Nonetheless, the improving economic picture is likely to benefit Trump. The unemployment rate recovered somewhat last month, and is likely to improve as election day nears.

However, Trump will be hoping that last week’s stock market correction is not the beginning of a more bearish streak on Wall Street.

4. Turnout

Voter participation has always been a determining factor in election outcome, but never more than this year, when America’s electoral infrastructure is likely to come under pressure from the pandemic. With most states expanding postal voting options for registered voters, Trump has stoked fear about the reliability of that system, warning that the election could be “rigged”.

Traditional in-person voting will also face logistical challenges. Primary elections in Milwaukee earlier this year saw the number of voting locations reduce from 180 to just five due to a shortage of workers, leading to huge queues. With many states unprepared for the challenges of running an election during a pandemic, and an expected surge in mail-in voting, it is highly possible that America will not have a result on election night.

How the US votes

The unique electoral system means that winning more votes doesn’t necessarily mean victory. Instead, the US operates an electoral college system, whereby candidates must win at least 270 of the total 538 electoral college votes.

Each state is apportioned a set number of electoral college votes (California has the highest number with 55 votes, while sparsely-populated states like Wyoming and Alaska have the minimum number of three).

Hence, the focus during presidential campaigns is winning electorally important states that traditionally “swing” between Democrat and Republican.

Most states operate a “winner takes all” system, ie, if a candidate wins 51 per cent of the vote, he or she is awarded all the electoral college votes for that state.

As well as the presidential election on November 3rd, all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and a third of the 100 Senate seats will be on the ballot, in addition to multiple state and gubernatorial elections.

Swing states


16 electoral college votes

Michigan was one of three mid-west states that swung for Trump in 2016, helping him to defeat Clinton. The state had voted Democrat in the previous six elections. In a state with a population of about 10 million, Trump won by just 10,700 votes.

Surrounded by the Great Lakes, the state is home to Detroit, once the heart of America’s automotive industry. Many blue-collar workers voted Republican in 2016, when polls showed that Clinton was a particularly unpopular candidate here.

Biden is hoping a strong African-American turnout in urban areas could deliver victory on election day. Both Trump and Biden visited the state this week, with Biden unveiling a new tax plan that he says will help the American worker.


20 electoral college votes

This promises to be one of the most closely-watched states on election day. When Pennsylvania was called for Trump in the early hours of election night 2016, his victory was secured.

This time around, Biden has home-state advantage. He was born in the blue-collar town of Scranton in the northeast of the state, a connection he regularly highlights. He is hoping that his politics and style can connect with the swathes of rural voters in old steel and mining towns who turned Republican in 2016.

At the same time, strong turnout in the vote-heavy suburbs of Philadelphia is also essential if Democrats are to win back the former Democratic stronghold.


10 electoral college votes

Clinton’s ill-fated decision not to visit Wisconsin during the 2016 election campaign has already entered election lore. Trump’s victory in the mid-western state was one of the biggest political upsets of the 2016 campaign. Wisconsin had not voted Republican since 1984 when Ronald Reagan won the state.

Eager not to take the state for granted again, Democrats had been scheduled to hold their party convention in the city of Milwaukee this year, but the pandemic meant that most of the convention took place online.

Democrats are confident they can win back Wisconsin in November. However, Trump has gone on the offensive in the suburban areas near Milwaukee, playing on fears over crime following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in the Wisconsin city of Kenosha last month.


29 electoral college votes

The Sunshine State remains one of the prizes of election day, with a hefty 29 college votes. Just as the 2000 election 20 years ago came down to a contested battle for votes between front-runner Al Gore and Republican candidate George W Bush, Florida may once again come down to the wire.

Trump, who moved his official residence to Florida last year, is hoping to win the competitive state on November 3rd. He is likely to have strong support in the northern and panhandle parts of the state in particular. His linking of Democrats with “socialism” may also resonate with southern Florida’s Hispanic population.

Biden has tended to underperform with Hispanics, many of whom backed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.


16 electoral college votes

Democrats are hoping that this year could be the time when the electoral map in Georgia is redrawn. A state with a deep history of racial inequality, it has voted Republican for years. But Democrats see pick-up opportunities for votes in the suburban areas of Atlanta in particular, with polls showing that middle-class women who lean Republican, are disillusioned with the politics of Trump.

Though primary elections earlier this year were plagued by long queues and problems at polling sites, registered Democrats turned out in record numbers. Democrats are hoping that the protests over the murder of George Floyd in May may also help to turn out the black vote.


10 electoral college votes

Minnesota has emerged as a surprise swing state in this election, with Republicans hoping to flip the state that has not voted for a Republican president in almost 50 years. Trump lost to Clinton by almost 45,000 votes, and his campaign sees an opening here.

The mid-western state sprang to international attention this year, when African-American man George Floyd died as police detained him in Minneapolis. While the “Twin Cities” region of Minneapolis and St Paul has become increasingly diverse in recent decades – Somali-born Ilhan Omar represents the area in Congress – the state of five million people is still more than 80 per cent white.

Trump has been campaigning heavily in the state, hoping to win over some suburban voters concerned about the recent urban unrest in the wake of the George Floyd murder, while also seeking to keep the agricultural community on board despite the impact of the trade war with China.


11 electoral college votes

One of the so-called “sunbelt” states, Arizona is a target for Democrats who have not won here since Bill Clinton in 1996. The state of seven million people is one of the fastest-growing in the country, with many older coastal residents relocating to the desert state, and a growing Hispanic population.

Arizonans elected their first Democratic senator in more than 25 years in the 2018 mid-term elections, but the state did not witness quite the “blue wave” that many expected.

However, Trump’s handling of coronavirus may damage his standing with many older residents of Arizona, which has been badly hit by the virus. Maricopa County, which covers the greater Phoenix area, is the one to watch in this sprawling state, with Democrats hoping for a suburban backlash against Trump.

North Carolina

15 electoral college votes

The classic “purple state”, North Carolina has flipped between Democrat and Republican over the years, though Trump won the state by 4 percentage points in 2016. The state epitomises the urban-rural divide that shapes the political map of the United States, with the university towns of Raleigh and Durham firmly Democrat, while the majority of more rural counties in the state voting Republican. Polls have Biden ahead – but only just, with a two-point lead on average.

The Republican convention was slated to take place in the state last month, but only a limited number of events took place in Charlotte ultimately because of coronavirus.

Democrats are also hoping to pick up a senate seat in North Carolina. The Republican incumbent Thom Tillis is trailing the Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham in the polls.

Voter turnout and participation will also be a key factor in this state which has a history of gerrymandering and controversial voting laws.


Six electoral college votes

Nevada voted for Clinton in 2016, but the Trump campaign sees an opportunity to win in November. The rural state, flanked by Las Vegas in the south and Reno in the north, has voted Democrat since 2008, reflecting a growing proportion of Latino voters.

In an indication that Republicans believe the state is in play, Trump was due to campaign in Reno and Las Vegas this weekend but the events were cancelled because of state coronavirus restrictions.

Trump’s handling of the economy is likely to loom large in voters’ minds in Nevada, traditionally a difficult state to gauge. The Las Vegas area has been badly hit by the pandemic. The Trump campaign has sued the state for mailing absentee-ballots to all registered voters. The Bill legislating for the new policy, was signed by the Democratic governor of the state but denounced by the president as “illegal”.


38 electoral college votes

It’s a long shot, but Democrats believe that the second-largest state in the nation could be in play for the first time in decades. Texas has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980, but demographic changes has made it the holy grail for Democratic analysts, who believe it will ultimately turn blue. A growing Hispanic population – many of whom are now reaching voting age – is a boon to Democrats.

However, despite much enthusiasm around the senate campaign of Democrat Beto O’Rourke, ultimately he fell short in the mid-term elections of 2018, failing to dislodge the incumbent, Ted Cruz. Republicans, however, are braced for a backlash against Trump in the suburbs of Dallas and Houston, particularly among female voters.


18 electoral college votes

Though it is arguable if Ohio is still a swing state, its high number of electoral college votes means it is one to watch on election night. Trump won the state by a decisive eight points in 2016, cementing its status as a Republican state in the eyes of many.

If Biden was to win here in November, Trump is likely to be in trouble. Barack Obama won the state twice, and only two presidents in the last 120 years have won the presidency without winning Ohio – Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy.

Trump is leading Biden in Ohio according to most polls, but it’s close. All eyes will be on Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29th when Biden and Trump will meet for the first presidential debate.

*This article was amended on September 16th, 2020 to say Democrats have not won in Arizona since Bill Clinton's victory in 1996, rather than 1992.