Election Scenarios: 2020 U.S. Edition


America trembles on the edge of a knife and thereby so does the world. The last four years have been a gigantic cluster-fuck wild psychedelic circus interesting time and the ramp up to the 2020 Presidential election is no different. Pundits are allowing their imaginations to run wild with possibilities, some with more credibility than others. How will the election play out? I present here seven scenarios that I feel are the likeliest outcomes from a final count of the votes.

Scenario 1: Extreme Trump Win (312-226 for Trump)

We’ll start with the scenario most likely to cause widespread panic – lead off with the hits, baby, it gets the crowd moving. In this scenario we see the popular vote in several key states swing wildly toward Trump at the last minute, allowing him to hold on to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan while avoiding losing Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. This scenario is possible, I guess, but really rather unlikely. Trump would have to have a wild swing of more than 8% in Wisconsin and Michigan while getting more than a 5% swing in Pennsylvania. If 2016 style polling errors combined with a huge last-minute break of undecideds toward Trump were to occur, then Pennsylvania perhaps might be in play. There are a couple of problems with this scenario, however: first, polling companies realized that not weighting their results by education was fundamentally stupid; second, there was something like 16% undecided in 2016 and that figure has dropped precipitously to 6% on average this cycle. There probably aren’t enough error+swing factors in Wisconsin and Michigan for Trump to hold them. Pennsylvania becomes the key here, then, but while it’s possible for Trump to hold Pennsylvania I doubt he will. On one hand, people’s minds are largely made up; on the other, Biden’s margin of victory has held steady between 5 and 6% since July. Trump would have to sharply narrow this gap and it would likely at that point involve the GOP “going in with their lawyers the night of” to try to legally force all votes to not be counted. Which is, of course, a possibility. So while this scenario is possible according to some poll-watchers, Scenario 2 is a much likelier look at a Trump win. Also note that this is the best Trump is likely to see; I’ve seen people out there spinning wild scenarios where Trump flips Nevada, Rhode Island, and New Jersey (not to mention New York) but in those cases I have to quote Candidate Biden: “Come on, man.”

Scenario 2: Likeliest Trump Re-Election Scenario (280-258 for Trump)

This scenario posits a narrow victory for Trump of 280 EV, which would probably lead to some very ugly post-election scenes on American streets. This scenario requires Trump to hold Pennsylvania (see my Penn argument in Scenario 1 for my ideas on the likelihood of this) while running the table on North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona. While that’s not unprecedented (I mean, he did it in 2016) it’s probably not going to happen at this stage in the game. The Democrat focus on Georgia and Texas in the final days of the campaign plus the polling directionality holds the strong possibility of Biden managing to flip Georgia, if not Texas. Biden only has to win one of the five mentioned states, four of which he currently (narrowly) leads in aggregate polling. So Trump would have to get a huge swing of the remaining undecideds (and drive them out to the polls in the first place) in Penn + the five above, and spend piles of money he doesn’t have on legal attacks in those six states. I’ll get into potentials for each of those in following scenarios, but straight up: I find the idea that Biden can’t flip ONE of these states unlikely in general.

Scenario 3: Bets Hedged, Erring Conservative: The Narrow Biden Win (279-259 for Biden)

Another scenario with a narrow win that ends up causing unrest in both American institutions and society at large. This case has Biden flip Wisconsin and Michigan (likely) and Pennsylvania (probable) while simultaneously getting hit by big undecided swings or polling errors in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona. It’s entirely likely and it’s a Biden win, but maybe a Phyrric one given the state of the Republic. This would require a popular vote lead of maybe around 3.5-4% for Biden, which is low given the aggregate but within the lower confidence bounds of some recent polling (leaving aside the quality of those polls, of course). It also requires Trump to get over some pretty deep structural problems in Florida, which I’ll talk about in the next scenario.

Scenario 4: Pollsters Redemption Arc 2020 (350-188 for Biden)

This scenario requires pollsters to be more or less bang-on, which is possible but maybe less likely than Scenario 3. In this one Biden flips Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Arizona, but where Trump holds Texas. This scenario is entirely likely once all the votes are counted – a scenario itself that requires WI, MI, and let’s say FL to be early decisive calls, making a Biden win a fait accompli and ending the likelihood of Trump spending the threadbare GOP war chest on lawyers. Why do I think Florida is possibly an early call? Old people. Recent FL polling has shown some very interesting demographic breakdowns. As it turns out, Biden is clearly winning the vote among the 18-34 age group and the 65+ age group, with a narrow lead in the 35-44 group and a loss in the 45-64 age group. Seniors in Florida are breaking for Biden (something about the government’s COVID response) and the sheer number of sun-baked old people in Florida is, for me, likely to deliver the state for Biden. It’s also an eastern seaboard state, so if Biden’s lead is pretty clear by 9:30-10 PM, it could actually be an early night after all. A lot of things have to go right, of course, including a muted amount of vote-counting shenanigans, but less likely scenarios have come to pass and most of this map is entirely probable. The only iffy state in this scenario (given let’s say a 7-8% lead nationally) for me is North Carolina, where the President’s numbers have been pretty strongly competitive for a while now.

Scenario 5: Texas Goes Blue (389-149 for Biden)

This is, as you can tell, the same as Scenario 4 except Texas flips and the GOP loses their minds. This is iffy but possible. Texas has taken to early voting in a huge way this election and their turnout is trending to be up sharply. If undecideds break for Biden in a big way then this is a possible map and one that will cause much beard-stroking and pontificating among pundits for the next four years. Democrats have had their hearts broken about Texas before – the Beto vs. Cruz matchup in 2018 led to much gnashing of teeth – and even a Biden win won’t likely flip the Senate seat, since Sen. John Cornyn seems to have a pretty solid lead by all accounts. Still, Texas has grown appreciably bluer every year since 2016 and it’s not out of the realm of possibility for this to happen. After all, California was a red state until it wasn’t.

Scenario 6: The Fabled Blue Wave (419-119 for Biden)

It’s a mark of how crazy this year is that this scenario is actually possible. It is, at any rate, more possible than Scenario 1. Everything has to go right, no vote counting shenanigans can occur, and the stars have to be properly aligned. Still, it’s not crazy. I’ve talked about the other states that are flipped here in previous scenarios but this adds some big pickups: Iowa, Ohio, and Montana. I don’t think flipping those three are likely, but in a scenario where we enter into Biden landslide territory (national popular vote lead by more than 10%), they become increasingly more possible. The polls are pretty close in Iowa: Trump looks to be in the lead but that lead is less than 2% on average. Ohio is a little more out of reach; the Trump lead there is comfortably around 3-4% on average and he’ll probably hold it. Montana is a fun one – there hasn’t been a pile of polling there and ostensibly Trump has a lead of around 5%, but it’s a state he carried by 20% in 2016 and it’s a state that’s not so much kneejerk-red as they are conservative, in that they tend over time to vote for who they think will do a better job overall. Alaska is another slowly-transitioning state that has been counted as reliably red for a long time; Trump won it by 15% in 2016 and is only carrying it in the polls by 5-6% this cycle. They’re the closest thing you’ll find to swing states in Trump’s red firewall and while they’re unlikely to be a flip, in crazy Scenario 6 anything’s possible.

Scenario 7: Pure Chaos (269-269, tie goes to the House of Representatives)

The most horrifying of scenarios, where Trump holds Pennsylvania while Biden flips Arizona, Trump holds the other swing states, and Trump wins both Nebraska’s second electoral district and Maine’s second electoral district. It’s entirely possible, and it’s one reason why Washington D.C. businesses have spent the weekend boarding up their storefronts and foreign countries are issuing travel advisories for the United States, citing the potential for post-election civil unrest. That unrest will probably happen regardless, but it’s a stone guarantee that it will happen after this scenario. This is a likely Trump win, by the way: the election goes to the House where the Reps gather by state to vote, and the gerrymandering the GOP has been engaged in for 25 years finally pays off big for them. The Democrats have a majority in the House (a majority set to expand in January) but on a count by state they will likely lose. Aren’t the arcane rules of American democracy fun? They should probably have just worked out a formula whereby there was an odd number of electoral voters so that ties couldn’t happen, but the Founding Fathers were also wasted when they wrote the Constitution, so I suppose you can’t expect too much out of the framework.

Scenario 8: It’s Britney, Bitch