This article has been updated to include the latest information.
It’s the morning of the election, and the final polls show the race coming down to razor-thin margins in the key battleground states that will ultimately decide who is in control of the executive branch for the next four years. Multiple latest national polls show President Trump within 5 points of Joe Biden, including one pollster who gives Biden only a 1-point edge and another who puts the gap at just 3. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1% only to go on to get trounced in the Electoral College. Meanwhile, the once formidable leads Biden held in potentially decisive battleground states have contracted dramatically in the final weeks of the election, giving Trump a precarious but nonetheless possible path to victory.
While the national polls can be helpful in trying to gauge widespread public sentiment and momentum, the election, of course, isn’t decided by the popular vote — the data that matters most comes from the states. The problem is, as 2016 demonstrated, state polling is often more inaccurate due in part to less thorough information. Trump’s 304–227 electoral defeat of Clinton in 2016, despite heading into election day with a predicted loss of at least 6 votes, was a product of multiple election day reversals in key battleground states. Polls showed Trump trailing in Michigan by 3.4, but he won by 1 point; Trump trailed by 6.5 points in Wisconsin, won by 1; Trump trailed by 2 in Pennsylvania, eked out another 1-point win again.
This year, there are realistically only 12 true battleground states: 1) Arizona, 2) Georgia, 3) Florida, 4) Iowa, 5) Michigan, 6) Minnesota, 7) Nevada, 8) North Carolina, 9) Ohio, 10) Pennsylvania, 11) Texas and 12) Wisconsin.Of those, Trump must win Texas and likely Florida to have any chance. Along with those two major states, Trump needs at least another 5 states to gain enough electoral votes to win.
Trump’s most likely path to victory is to win the following seven states: AZ, GA, FL, OH, NC, PA and TX. If he pulls that off, he wins 272 electoral votes and thus the presidency.
On the morning of the election, Biden is favored in 7 of the 12 battleground states, while Trump leads in 5. The gaps in the 7 states Trump needs to win to secure the presidency, the margins are razor-thin, less than 2 points. Trump has seen improvement in the last two weeks in 10 of the 12 battleground states (AZ, GA, FL, IA, MI, MN, NV, OH, NC and PA), while he has lost ground in two (TX and WI).
Here’s where things stand in the key battleground states, according to RCP’s averages:
- ARIZONA — Biden +0.9 (down from Biden +3.2) — 2016: Trump won by 3.6
- GEORGIA — Trump 1 (flipped from Biden +1.2) — 2016: Trump won by 5
- FLORIDA — Biden +0.9 (down from Biden +2.3) — 2016: Trump won by 1.2
- IOWA — Trump +2 (flipped from Biden +0.8) — 2016: Trump won by 9.4
- MICHIGAN — Biden +4.2 (down from Biden +7.8) — 2016: Trump won by 0.2
- MINNESOTA — Biden +4.3 (down from Biden +6) — 2016: Trump lost by 1.5
- NEVADA — Biden +2.2 (down from Biden +5.2) — 2016: Trump lost by 2.4
- OHIO — Trump +1.4 (up from Trump +0.6) — 2016: Trump won by 8
- NORTH CAROLINA — Trump +0.2 (flipped from Biden +1.5) — 2016: Trump won by 3.6
- PENNSYLVANIA — Biden +1.2 (down from Biden +5.1) — 2016: Trump won by 1.7
- TEXAS — Trump +1.2 (down from Trump +3.2) — 2016: Trump won by 9
- WISCONSIN — Biden +6.7 (up from Biden +4.6) — 2016: Trump won by 0.7
On the morning of the election, some major national polls show the gap between Trump and Biden having narrowed significantly from Biden’s once dominant lead. A lead that was once 9+ points by average shrunk to now less than 7. Rasmussen gives Biden a negligible 1-point advantage, while IBD/TIPP gives Biden just a 3-point lead. Other polls, however, give Biden a double-digit advantage, including studies by Quinnipiac and Economist/YouGov. Here are the eleven most recent polls factored into RCP’s average:
- Economist/YouGov (10/31-11/2) — Biden +10
- Reuters/Ipsos (10/29-11/2) — Biden +7
- IBD/TIPP (10/28-11/1) — Biden +3
- Rasmussen Reports (10/28-11/1) — Biden +1
- Quinnipiac (10/28-11/1) — Biden +11
- JTN/RMG Research (10/29-31) — Biden +7
- Survey USA (10/29-31) — Biden +8
- NBC News/WSJ (10/29-31) — Biden +10
- Fox News (10/27-29) — Biden +8
- The Hill/HarrisX (10/25-28) — Biden +4
- Emerson (10/25-26) — Biden +5
How does this compare to 2016?
At the same point in the previous presidential election cycle (Oct. 26), Clinton led Trump in the national polls by an average of 3.2 points (46.8–43.6). By Election Day (Nov. 8), Clinton’s lead had diminished to 3.2%. Clinton would go on to win the popular vote by 2.1% but lose the Electoral College by a wide margin (304–227).
The 2016 polls were far more volatile than 2020, the gap between Clinton and Trump repeatedly expanding and shrinking dramatically — with Trump at times even taking a razor-thin lead. That hasn’t been the case in 2020. For the first part of the year, through mid-March, the gap between Biden and Trump steadily held at around 5%. As the pandemic lockdowns began, the divide roughly doubled, reaching its June 23 peak of 10.2%, by which point the George Floyd-sparked protests and riots were in full swing.
This article has been updated and expanded to include additional recent and relevant information.