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SABATO’S CRYSTAL BALL

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Our initial 2024 Electoral College ratings start with just four Toss-up states.

— Democrats start with a small advantage, although both sides begin south of what they need to win.

— We consider a rematch of the 2020 election — Joe Biden versus Donald Trump — as the likeliest matchup, but not one that is set in stone.

A first look at the 2024 Electoral College

Democrats start closer to the magic number of 270 electoral votes in our initial Electoral College ratings than Republicans. But with few truly competitive states and a relatively high floor for both parties, our best guess is yet another close and competitive presidential election next year — which, if it happened, would be the sixth such instance in seven elections (with 2008 as the only real outlier).

Map 1 shows these initial ratings. We are starting 260 electoral votes worth of states as at least leaning Democratic, and 235 as at least leaning Republican. The four Toss-ups are Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin — the three closest states in 2020 — along with Nevada, which has voted Democratic in each of the last four presidential elections but by closer margins each time (it is one of the few states where Joe Biden did worse than Hillary Clinton, albeit by less than a tenth of a percentage point). That is just 43 Toss-up electoral votes at the outset. Remember that because of a likely GOP advantage in the way an Electoral College tie would be broken in the U.S. House, a 269-269 tie or another scenario where no candidate won 270 electoral votes would very likely lead to a Republican president. So Democrats must get to 270 electoral votes while 269 would likely suffice for Republicans, and there are plausible tie scenarios in the Electoral College.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings

For the purposes of these ratings, we are considering a rematch of the 2020 election — Joe Biden versus Donald Trump — as the likeliest matchup, but not one that is set in stone.

Despite a multitude of weaknesses, such as an approval rating in just the low 40s and widespread concern about his age and ability to do the job, Biden does not have credible opposition within his own party, drawing only fringe challengers Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson. It may be that Biden could or should have drawn a stronger challenger, and maybe something happens that entices that kind of challenger into the race. But as of now, Biden appears to be on course to renomination.

Trump faces legitimate legal problems, specifically following his recent indictment over serious allegations that he improperly retained highly sensitive government documents. However, we would never presume an actual guilty verdict in this or another case until it actually happens — nor are we even sure a guilty verdict would prevent Trump’s renomination. It may be that the weight of Trump’s problems gradually reduces his level of support over the course of this calendar year leading into next year’s primaries, allowing a rival to consolidate the non-Trump portion of the party and really push him in the primaries. Or maybe Trump is compelled to take some sort of plea deal that involves him leaving the race. Those caveats aside, we see a party that is still broadly comfortable with Trump as its nominee. Until that changes, he’s the favorite.

It has now been more than a month since Trump’s leading GOP rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), entered the race. As best we can tell, he has gotten no real “bump” from becoming an official candidate — if anything, DeSantis’s polling position was stronger several months ago than it is today. Meanwhile, the field has gotten bigger, further splintering the non-Trump support while the former president remains as a clear plurality (or even majority) leader in national and state-level polling. This matters in a nominating contest in which even a plurality leader in a given state can end up getting the lion’s share or all of its delegates (as we saw with Trump in 2016).

For our general election outlook, we are not taking current polling much into account right now. Biden’s national polling right now is probably worse than what our ratings reflect: Different polls show either Biden ahead by a little or Trump ahead by a little nationally, and about a tie in aggregate per RealClearPolitics’s average. We believe Biden would do better than that, at least in the national popular vote, against Trump: Trump lost the popular vote twice, and we doubt he would be a stronger candidate in 2024 than he was in 2016 or 2020. The last time Trump was on the general election ballot was prior to the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol, an event that can now be used effectively against him in a general election setting. We just saw that in the 2022 election, several candidates who were tied to Trump running in key states — such as Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia, several election-denying candidates in other statewide races across the nation, etc. — underperformed the electoral environment. Midterms are not presidential elections, and this does not necessarily mean Trump can’t win — he certainly could, and our ratings reflect that possibility. But the actual results from recent elections, which suggested significant problems for Trump, seem to be a better guide than off-year polling.

We also are not really taking third-party voting into account as of now, although one could imagine the third party vote, whatever size it is, hurting the Democratic nominee more than the GOP nominee. The Green Party nominee, who might be left-wing intellectual Cornel West, could hurt Biden from the left, while a potential candidate backed by the group No Labels could provide an outlet for moderate/conservative voters. However, we do think it’s likely that any third-party candidate will poll better than they perform, and that the ultimate third party vote does not seem likely to be large (perhaps bigger than 2020’s 2% of the total, but likely not reaching 2016’s 6%). Still, that may matter in a close race, so it is a very important factor to watch.

We have previously noted that Biden’s chances in the next election are very contingent on who the GOP decides to nominate as his opponent. As of right now, that person appears likeliest to be Donald Trump. That certainly doesn’t make Biden a shoo-in next year, but it does make him better positioned to win, which is reflected in our ratings.

Let’s take a look at some state-level details of our initial Electoral College ratings:

— Democrats start with 191 Safe electoral votes, while Republicans start with just 122. However, if you combine the Safe and Likely columns, the effective “floor” for both parties is essentially identical: 221 for Democrats, and 218 for Republicans. Texas is one of a handful of important states (Arizona and Georgia are a couple of others) that very clearly have trended Democratic in the Trump era. But Texas is still a Republican-leaning state, as its big urban areas have not quite gotten blue enough to make up for how red its lesser-populated places are. Other Likely Republican states Florida, Iowa, and Ohio have all moved right in the Trump era. Alaska also appears here as Likely Republican as its GOP lean has eroded in recent years, but it’s also still clearly in the GOP column, and it’s included here more as a curiosity than anything else.

We suspect the rating that might spur the most disagreement is starting Pennsylvania as Leans Democratic, as opposed to a Toss-up. It’s also the one that, internally, we are the most conflicted about. On one hand, Pennsylvania only voted for Biden by a little over a point in 2020 after backing Trump by less than a point in 2016. That basic fact argues for Toss-up. But we also think Biden may have a bit more room to grow in vote-rich southeast Pennsylvania against Trump, which could help protect his narrow edge as Republicans try to squeeze even more of a margin out of the state’s white rural and small-town areas. Certainly Democrats did great in Pennsylvania in 2022, although we don’t necessarily view that as predictive — Democrats also did well in the 2018 statewide races, but that didn’t prevent the state from being close in 2020. If you believe we’re giving an unreasonable benefit of the doubt to Democrats in Pennsylvania, consider that we may be doing the same to Republicans in North Carolina, a state that was Trump’s closest victory in 2020. We also may be giving the GOP a benefit of the doubt by listing Nevada as a Toss-up instead of as Leans Democratic, given the Democrats’ frequent ability to pull out close victories in the state. But Democrats should be concerned that this working-class state’s center of votes, Clark County (Las Vegas), is getting more competitive as opposed to getting more Democratic.

Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin seem like fairly clear-cut Toss-ups, given how close they were in 2020 (each was decided by less than a point). But there’s a world in which the realigning patterns we’ve seen in the Trump years, in which big metro areas like Phoenix and Atlanta are getting bluer, push their states (Arizona and Georgia) from a reddish shade of purple to a bluish shade, and that Pennsylvania ends up being closer for president than those states are. Who the GOP nominates will play a role here — maybe a non-Trump nominee ends up being a better fit for the party in the Sun Belt, which would solidify Arizona and Georgia as Toss-ups or maybe even push them back to the Republicans. Wisconsin, meanwhile, may be the purest Toss-up on the whole map: Its presidential margin was below a point in four of the last six elections.

— In our 2020 ratings — when we ultimately missed just one state, North Carolina — we started Michigan out as Leans Democratic, a decision that paid off, as Biden won the state by nearly 3 points after it surprisingly backed Trump in 2016. It remains Leans Democratic here, along with New Hampshire, which has long been considered a swing state but seems to have settled left of center. The GOP position on abortion, in particular, seems like a considerable problem in these states (one could apply this argument to Pennsylvania too, among other places).

— Maine and Nebraska, the two states that award electoral votes at the congressional-district level, have unique ratings. Nebraska’s two statewide electoral votes and two of its three districts are Safe Republican, but the Omaha-based NE-2 voted for Biden by about a half-dozen points in 2020, and we are rating it as Leans Democratic to start. Meanwhile, Maine’s northern 2nd District backed Trump by about a half-dozen points in 2020 and it starts as Leans Republican. The two statewide electoral votes are rated as Likely Democratic — Minnesota, New Mexico, and Virginia are also in that category — and the very Democratic 1st District of Maine starts as Safe Democratic.

Conclusion: A narrow battlefield

We have previously noted that only seven states were decided by less than three points in 2020: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. This represents the real battlefield: Particularly if the race is a Biden vs. Trump redux, we would be surprised if any other state flipped from 2020 outside of this group.

Even then, we’re not even sure that all of these seven states are truly in doubt. After all, we’re starting three of the seven in the Leans category (Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania).

This all underscores the reality that despite the nation being locked in a highly competitive era of presidential elections, the lion’s share of the individual states are not competitive at all.

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