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How Biden – or Trump – gained 270 votes


The question of whether or not President Donald Trump will be re-elected is not really a matter for the whole country.

Joe Biden currently has a pretty big lead in national polls. Because of the magic of the electoral college, the fringes in a limited number of key states that happen to be politically divided will determine whether Trump or Biden was sworn in on January 20, 2021 – or whether the outcome is much closer to a national crisis.

If Biden wins big enough in enough swing states, he can likely repel any attempt by Trump to question or contest the results. As conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt once wrote in a different context, "If it's not tight, they can't cheat."

But when the electoral college's leeway is much closer – for example, when it can be swung by a very narrow state – expect recounts, legal challenges, and a tense situation.

Therefore, the electoral college map and math are very important. There are 14 states and two congressional districts to watch over the Trump and Biden campaigns. You can think of them in four groups.

The big six swing states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina are the states considered most likely for the outcome.

The two swing convention districts: Nebraska's Second Ward and Maine's Second Ward, a pair of stray votes that could be critical to extremely close competition.

The states Trump is trying to defend: Ohio, Iowa, Georgia, and Texas probably won't be the turning points, but if they move to Biden it will likely mean he wins big.

The states Biden tries to defend: Nevada, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Maine are all slim Biden states where Trump is hoping for profits.

I'll go over all of these groups below and explain the different paths to victory for Biden and Trump – and the paths to a much less certain outcome.

The Big Six: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina

These are six key states that have received by far the most attention in election campaigns and election analysts. NPR reported that nearly 85 percent of advertising spending from presidential campaigns and outside groups was focused on these states.

Andrew Prokop / Vox

These states are so important because they are all medium to large in size and politically fairly evenly divided. Four of them – Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida – were won by Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. North Carolina voted for Obama in 2008, and has since voted Republicans in both elections. And Arizona voted Republicans for decades but has been trending Democrats in recent years.

Achieving a small profit margin in most of these states can bring a candidate a massive payoff for the electoral college – as Trump noted in 2016 when he won all six; he won three of them by less than a percentage point.

Recent surveys show a certain separation between these “big six” countries.

Florida (29 EVs) and North Carolina (15 EVs) are the furthest to the right of this batch, which means that Biden has a very close lead of 1 to 3 points on average.

Michigan (16 EVs) and Wisconsin (10 EVs) appear to be the furthest left, with Biden leading the polls there 5 to 7.

Pennsylvania (20 EVs) and Arizona (11 EVs) are in the middle, with Biden leading there with 3 to 6.

So if the current polls are correct and Biden wins all of these states, he has clearly won the presidency. However, if the race heats up or Trump tops the polls, small profit margins in these six states are likely to determine the winner.

There are 101 votes at stake in this group. And if the winner is the same in any other state as it was in 2016 (far from sure, but we'll get there), Biden would start on a slight edge. Biden's magic number is that he needs 38 of those 101 votes to win the presidency. Trump's bar would be higher – he would need 66 of the 101 votes.

To get to his magic number, Trump will likely have to win Florida and three other states in that group – most plausibly North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Andrew Prokop / Vox

Biden, meanwhile, could hit his own magic number by winning Florida plus one of the remaining five states in that group (assuming he doesn't have surprising losses elsewhere). In the sample map below, he wins Florida plus only Wisconsin (which has the fewest electoral votes of these states):

Andrew Prokop / Vox

Another avenue for Biden, who doesn't rely on Florida or North Carolina, would be to just win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – turning back the states Trump won so narrowly in 2016:

Andrew Prokop / Vox

There's also the scary possibility of an Electoral College tie – which would happen if Trump wins Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania while Biden wins Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona and every other 2016 outcome is the same:

Andrew Prokop / Vox

The two Swing congress districts: ME-2 and NE-2

Another distinctive feature of the electoral college is that only two small states – Maine and Nebraska – have made the unusual decision to give a portion of their electoral votes to the winners in each congressional district in the state, rather than giving them all to the statewide winner like the other 48 states.

In practice, one of the two districts of Maine is safe for Democrats and two of the three districts of Nebraska are safe for Republicans. However, the remaining district in each state – the Second District of Maine and the Second District of Nebraska – is up for grabs.

With only one vote each, they will only play a role in the next races. But when there is such close competition, they are absolutely crucial. For example, tie card 269-269 above would switch to Biden if he could win Nebraska's second district.

Andrew Prokop / Vox

Maine's runner-up is rural, and white voters without a college degree make up a large portion of the electorate. The result in the presidential years was always the same as Maine's statewide result – until 2016, when Trump won it by a whopping 10 points (while losing the state by 3). Recent polls have shown that Biden has a narrow lead this year.

As for the Second District of Nebraska, which includes Omaha, Barack Obama actually won an earlier version of it in 2008. The Nebraska Republicans responded during the next redistribution by moving some Democratic voters out of the district, so Republicans won in 2012 and 2016, Biden is doing well this time around as the polarization of education continues (both white college graduates and minority voters make up significant parts of the electorate in this borough).

Here's another scenario in which these two congressional districts could determine the president – if Biden wins Michigan and Pennsylvania but Trump wins Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Wisconsin, with the two major congressional districts tied.

Andrew Prokop / Vox

If either candidate wins both, he wins. If they split it would be a tie between 269 and 269.

The states of Trump must defend

Beyond the six major swing core states and the two weird Congressional boroughs, each candidate tries to go on the offensive but hope for a surprise in a number of states where they suspect their opponent is preferred.

For Biden, the states he is trying to snatch from Trump are the traditional swing states of Ohio and Iowa, as well as the recently republican states of Georgia and Texas.

Andrew Prokop / Vox

We can think of this group as two pairs of states: two that Biden seeks to win back and two that are relatively uncharted territory for Democrats.

Ohio (18 EVs) and Iowa (6 EVs) went twice for Obama and leaned heavily on Republicans in 2016 (Trump won both by over 8 points). Biden is hoping to win back, and poll averages suggest he has a good chance – he's currently tied in Ohio and Iowa as well.

Texas (38 EVs) and Georgia (16 EVs) I haven't voted for Democratic presidential candidates in decades – but Democratic defeats there have recently shrunk (Trump won Georgia 5 percentage points and Texas 9 percentage points). Currently, survey averages show that Biden is just ahead in Georgia and just behind in Texas.

It is widely believed that these states are unlikely to be critical because if Biden wins one of these states he will likely have won enough states from the big six too.

But strange things can happen. For example, here's a (admittedly very unlikely) map where Trump is strong in the upper Midwest and the Rust Belt (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania), and Florida and North Carolina win – but Biden wins the election because of surprisingly high turnout among the Mexican-American voters brings him close victories in Arizona and Texas.

Andrew Prokop / Vox

The states of Biden must defend

There are also a few states Biden doesn't take for granted just yet: mostly Nevada and Minnesota, but it's probably best to keep an eye on New Hampshire and Maine as well.

Andrew Prokop / Vox

To the Nevada (6 electric vehicles) and Minnesota (10 electric vehicles)Polls show these two states are currently about as close as Wisconsin and Michigan. But since Nevada has few electoral votes and Minnesota appears to be leaning to the left of neighboring Wisconsin, they're less likely to be crucial in electoral college math – except in a very narrow result, of course.

Clinton won both states last time, but they were close – she won Nevada by 2.4 percentage points and Minnesota by only 1.5 percentage points.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire (4 EVs) and and Maine (2 EVs for statewide winners) Don't look as competitive in recent polls – polls show Biden is in double digits in both states. Still, they're worth a mention as they were pretty close in 2016 (Clinton won New Hampshire by just 0.4 percentage points and Maine by 3).

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