In years past, Ohio and Florida were viewed as the most critical states in the Electoral College. While those two are still vitally important for any Republican or Democratic path to the White House, since 2012 no state has held more importance than Pennsylvania. Whether on Tuesday or later, whoever wins Pennsylvania likely wins the Electoral College and the White House.
Pennsylvania is essential for a couple of reasons. The primary one is this: winning Pennsylvania is President Donald Trump’s most straightforward path to reelection. Suppose Trump carries Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, and the reliably Republican states of Georgia and Texas. If you include Pennsylvania, Trump sits at 268 electoral votes, needing only two more to win the White House again. Suppose Trump carries Arizona in with these states. In that case, he can lose the remainder of the Midwest states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota and still win.
That’s why Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight told viewers on ABC’s This Week that “Joe Biden will become ‘an underdog’ if he fails to win Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes.” He went on to say:
Pennsylvania has not bumped up to a 7- or 8-point Biden lead like we see in Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s 5 points. It’s not a big early voting state, so a lot of votes have not yet been cast in Pennsylvania. Among the votes that were sent in by mail, there are some provisions about a naked ballot, a security envelope. That could make things more complicated. You could have the courts involved. You have some protests, looting in Philadelphia. There’s lots of stuff going on.
There are a few things in Silver’s statement worth teasing out. The first is that Pennsylvania is not a big early-voting state. All those months where Biden showed large leads don’t count in Pennsylvania, where voters decide late. Any movement in voter intentions at the last second may not show up in polling. If voters choose to move late to Trump, or non-voters who decide last-minute, no one will have any clue how those people will cast a ballot in the end.
The second point he made about mail-in ballots reminds us that we might not know official results on election night. Pennsylvania’s secretary of state Kathy Boockvar has warned as much, saying it could “days” to sort things out. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Boockvar said that 2.4 million Pennsylvanians have already voted by mail, and that she estimates there will be 10 times as many mail-in ballots than in 2016.
“I expect that the overwhelming majority of ballots in Pennsylvania, that’s mail-in and absentee ballots, as well as in-person ballots, will be counted within a matter of days,” she said.
The mail surge shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially with coronavirus cases rising across the United States, in all states, but especially across the Midwest.
If the race ends up being close, the expectation is that both campaigns will end up in litigation that goes before the Supreme Court. Pennsylvania already had an election law case before the Supreme Court, which was split 4-4. With Justice Amy Coney Barrett now firmly on the court, any future issues won’t end be tied.
But the most concerning aspect for Democrats is that if Pennsylvania is closer than polls suggest, it brings up their growing weaknesses with the Midwest’s rural voters. There are signs Democrats are weaker than most polling shows.
Another swing state of the Midwest, Iowa, is currently polling firmly in the Trump camp right now. J. Ann Selzer and the Des Moines Register, the gold standard of polls in Iowa, showed Trump with a seven-point lead, and even a four-point win for Sen. Joni Ernst (R). The latter is in a tight reelection battle.
Iowa has gone for the overall winner of the presidency nine out of the last twelve elections and four of the previous five, with 2000 being the last year it didn’t go for the overall winner (and Gore won that race by 0.3% of the vote).
If Trump is that far ahead in Iowa, it calls into question his polling position in other states. The Des Moines Register described Biden as “fading” in the polls there, as Trump took the lead among the crucial voting block of independents. If Biden is fading in the Midwest, the same can happen in other Midwest states too.
Complicating matters there too is the coronavirus. In particular, Wisconsin has been a COVID-19 hotspot for the better part of a month, with no signs of it letting up there. We don’t know if being a hotspot state changes the kind of person who answers a poll. The ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Biden up 17 points in Wisconsin, which is a result no one with any election experience believes. That could suggest problems elsewhere in the state.
But even with all that, the race comes down to Pennsylvania, and its 20 electoral votes. If Trump wins that, he’s the favorite. If he loses it, he has to start winning other Midwest states to make up lost ground. That’s possible to do, but if Trump is weak in Pennsylvania, it suggests he’ll be vulnerable in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin too.
So on Tuesday night, as you’re waiting for results, watch Pennsylvania.
My final prediction: Trump 279 – Biden 259, with Pennsylvania and Arizona delivering the White House back to Trump, and I expect Pennsylvania’s final results to end up back before the Supreme Court.