PHILADELPHIA — A new wave of polls shows Joe Biden is still winning Pennsylvania, the state that could decide the election, as some Pennsylvanians start voting and the campaign reaches its final stages with the first presidential debate Tuesday.
And his lead appears substantial.
Three new polls all found Biden leading President Donald Trump by nearly double digits in a state Trump won by less than a percentage point in 2016.
Two released this week — from the New York Times/Siena College and WashingtonPost/ABC — found Biden ahead of Trump by nine percentage points among likely voters in Pennsylvania. Those followed a Fox News survey last Thursday showing the Democratic nominee leading by 7 points. Each polling outfit is widely respected, with A- or A-plus ratings from the data-focused website FiveThirtyEight.
In each case, Biden’s edge is fueled by massive support from women, voters of color and suburbanites, while Trump holds narrower advantages with men. The president’s strength is still driven by white voters who did not attend college — his most loyal supporters — but the polls suggest his lead with that segment may not be as large as he enjoyed four years ago.
The 9-point leads are on the high end for Biden. Other polls show him ahead by about four to five percentage points, which would still be meaningful but suggest a tighter race in which even a small polling error or shift in public opinion could turn the contest into a toss-up.
Overall, an average of recent Pennsylvania polls shows Biden leading by about 5.5 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s smaller than his leads in Michigan and Wisconsin, politically similar swing states that are also critical to the outcome.
The closer race in Pennsylvania, combined with its 20 Electoral College votes, are why analysts and political operatives increasingly believe it’s the “tipping point” state — the one most likely to deliver the decisive electoral votes.
Both campaigns say they expect Pennsylvania to be close in the end, and they have each blanketed the state with advertising and campaign visits — Trump rallied in Harrisburg last week and Biden is visiting Johnstown and other Western Pennsylvania sites on Wednesday. They’re likely to keep doing so until Election Day.
Voters, meanwhile, have already started casting mail ballots as the calendar slides toward October and the last full month of campaigning, with Trump facing a narrow window for a turnaround.
As 2016 demonstrated, Trump shouldn’t be counted out, late-breaking events can change the picture, and polls can be off — though pollsters have adjusted their methods since the last presidential race to account for factors that many state-level polls missed. Even as Trump appears almost certain to again lose the national popular vote, his appeal in politically critical states such as Pennsylvania leaves him with a path to reelection.
Two opposing possibilities remain realistic, in both Pennsylvania and nationally: a Biden landslide or a nail-biter either candidate can win.
Trump remains strong in the rural and small-city areas where he surged in 2016, and his campaign argues it can boost turnout even further in those regions this time around.
And polls can’t account for the continuing uncertainty around mail voting, which Democrats are relying upon much more heavily than Republicans. It is new to most Pennsylvania voters, and remains subject to litigation and legislative wrangling.
But the overall picture, so far, is of a remarkably stable race, despite a year of historic turmoil, social upheaval, economic and personal loss, disruption to American life, and, now, a pitched Supreme Court battle. Biden has consistently led a president who has never had a majority of national support and narrowly won in 2016 with the exactly right combination of votes in the exactly right states.
A small movement in Trump’s direction, however, could lead to another photo finish. (He won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by less than one percentage point each in 2016.) But a similarly small movement toward Biden could end with a romp in which Biden flips not just traditional battlegrounds, but states that were expected to be reliably Republican. He is already polling closely in places such as North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
The New York Times noted Tuesday that, in its polling averages, Biden is closer to winning Texas than Trump is to winning more perennial swing states like Pennsylvania. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, meanwhile, moved Iowa and Ohio to the “toss-up” column on Tuesday. Both states are more Republican than Pennsylvania.
The national picture has moved so favorably to Biden that Pennsylvania, once seen as essential for a Democratic victory, is increasingly viewed as a must-win for Trump to have any chance at a second term.
Biden, on the other hand, has opened other pathways to victory. If he loses the Keystone State but can hang on in Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin, and in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, where polls all show him ahead, Biden can still narrowly win the presidency.
Trump’s route to victory in Pennsylvania hinges on taking what he did in 2016 and going further. He has huge leads with white voters who did not attend college, who tend to be more blue-collar in their careers and culture, and in rural or small-city areas such as central and Northeastern Pennsylvania.
But Trump’s 17-percentage point lead among white Pennsylvania voters without degrees, according to the Post poll, isn’t as strong as in 2016, when he won that group by more than 30. Biden, citing his roots in Scranton, has tried to swing such voters and is making four stops Wednesday in blue-collar areas that have shifted right, including Johnstown and Latrobe in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Biden already has overwhelming support in cities and the Philadelphia suburbs, the polls show.
Women are a huge piece of Biden’s advantage. Across the Times, Post, and Fox polls, Biden led among Pennsylvania women likely to vote by 17 to 26 percentage points. Trump led with men, but more narrowly, by about 4 to 8 percentage points, depending on the survey.
Trump is still trusted more on economic issues, but his once-big edge on that front is now relatively narrow: just 4 points in the Fox poll, and 2 according to the Times survey.
Meanwhile, Trump trails by double digits in each survey when it comes to whom voters trust to handle the coronavirus. Even on the issues Trump is hoping can rally his campaign — crime, law and order, and the Supreme Court — all three polls show that more voters trust Biden.
Polls are just a moment in time and new events, like Tuesday’s debate, could still shape the outcome. But as October looms, Biden is sitting in the stronger position in the state that could decide it all.
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer