Analysis: Biden Leads, But He's Still Short Of 270 Electoral Votes : The NPR Politics Podcast Joe Biden maintains a lead in key states Trump won in 2016, but the race remains tight in Florida. Arizona and Georgia are toss-ups, and Texas is pink. And, the race is remarkably stable. Our reporting from across the country finds that a vanishingly small share of voters are persuadable. That makes the election primarily a turnout contest.

This episode: campaign correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional editor Deirdre Walsh, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Analysis: Biden Leads, But He's Still Short Of 270 Electoral Votes

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Analysis: Biden Leads, But He's Still Short Of 270 Electoral Votes

Analysis: Biden Leads, But He's Still Short Of 270 Electoral Votes

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KRISTEN: Hi. This is Kristen (ph). I'm a school librarian, and I am currently recording my virtual lessons, which means I've got my calming voice going. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

2:13 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, September 16.

KRISTEN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but one thing will still be true. Our students, their families and our staff will still be doing an amazing job. All right, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: I just want to say you have a great librarian calming voice. That is a fantastically soothing voice.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: That's much more soothing than the teacher voices I hear in my virtual learning school upstairs.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Yeah, right? The virtual learning is not (laughter) - it doesn't sound like that. It sounds like, Dad, I need your help.

KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And, Domenico, you've got your latest electoral map now out. I know last time we talked about it, it looked like some red states were sliding to pink, and some of the toss-ups were turning more blue. So where does the race stand now? I mean, what has changed since that last map you put out?

MONTANARO: Well, the biggest change last time and the biggest change this time is that Florida is, again, the focus. And Florida has now moved from lean Democrat to back to the toss-up column, where it traditionally has been in so many of these election cycles in the last several years. And that's where it goes back to now because we've seen President Trump gain in the polls by about four points in the last month and a half in Florida. Biden is still - has a narrow edge there by a couple of points in the polls. But beyond the polls, when you talk to Democratic strategists and Republicans on the ground there - as you know and you've talked to them - that Democrats are worried about seeing him sort of slumping a little bit with Latinos in the state. And on the other side of things, you've got Trump underperforming with seniors. That introduces a whole lot of volatility, and no one's exactly sure how that's all going to play out in this election season.

KHALID: So beyond Florida, does it still look overall like Joe Biden has an edge? Have other states changed much?

MONTANARO: Yeah, Biden still clearly has the edge here. I mean, he's - with states leaning in his direction, he's at 268 electoral votes. And that is just two shy of what's needed to become president. Now, those are all seats - states leaning in his direction. That doesn't mean that that's the way that they're going to go. We saw that last time in 2016, where states that were leaning in Hillary Clinton's direction wound up being won by President Trump. But there is a clear advantage from Biden. Trump, again, has to run the table. And the map has expanded somewhat. Where Arizona wasn't even really a major part of the conversation in 2016, it is this time. We've also seen the map solidify somewhat. New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia - all those places had been lean Democrat at the start of this cycle, now are more firmly in the Democratic camp. While a state like Nevada - Democrats are struggling a little bit to kind of put it away - stays in the lean Democratic column.

WALSH: One thing that's notable to me about your map, Domenico, is it wasn't that long ago that we had the Trump campaign, you know - then-campaign manager Brad Parscale - talking about, you know, how many states were in play, how they were expanding the map, going to places like New Mexico. But the last couple of times you've done this map, it's just very consistent. It's that it really is coming down to sort of the same small group of competitive states.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And it's not even just what, you know, we've seen in our reporting. It's also where the campaigns are spending their money. And we got a good look at that this week. And there's six states that are taking up 85% of all the spending. And that's those upper Midwestern, formerly blue-wall states, you know, in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as those Sunbelt states of Florida, Arizona and North Carolina. Those six states are getting 90% of Joe Biden and Democratic groups supporting him - the money that they're spending and 75- or 78% of the money that Republican groups and the Trump campaign are spending.

KHALID: That's interesting, Domenico, because, you know, two states that you didn't mention in terms of where loads of this ad money is going are Georgia and Ohio. But yet...

MONTANARO: Right.

KHALID: I noticed they're both toss-ups on your map.

MONTANARO: They are. And what's stunning about that, actually, is that the Trump campaign is the one spending all the money in Georgia and Ohio. On the air, the Trump campaign has spent $22 million in Ohio, much more than the Biden campaign has spent. The Trump campaign and allies supporting him, I should say, have been spending that money - and in Georgia, almost $13 million on the airwaves from Trump and allies supporting him.

KHALID: Oh, wow.

MONTANARO: The Biden campaign has spent nothing there. They're about to spend about $3- to $4 million in the month of October there. And you're seeing the Biden campaign test Texas. They've spent more than $5 million in Texas, and the Republicans have spent nothing. So we're seeing the core six states be the focus of the campaigns with some other places that the campaigns are testing. But we're really seeing a bit of a contraction in where the money's going, you know, unless you see some movement in the next couple of weeks.

WALSH: And it's really the Biden campaign that's expanding their map. And the Trump campaign sort of shoring up support in the states where they did well in 2016, that gave the president the White House - the Rust Belt states that you've been talking about.

MONTANARO: Well, that's kind of what happens when you win more than 300 electoral votes, you know? You wind up having to defend a whole lot of territory. You know, they're spending more than $300 million in states that Trump won last time, whereas Biden's only spent about $20 million or so on places Hillary Clinton won.

KHALID: So I know your map focuses on the presidential race. But tomorrow, Joe Biden is going to be talking to Senate Democrats. And, Deirdre, so I wanted to ask you - I mean, I think this map overall - a few years ago for the Senate in terms of Democrats taking the Senate back - seemed like a pretty unrealistic proposition. But lately, it feels like Democrats feel a little more optimistic that this is actually something they could do. And I'm curious what you think. I mean, do you see a path for that to actually happen?

WALSH: I do. I mean, I think it's a combination of the Democrats feeling more optimistic, but then you also see the very public warnings increasing from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In the last week, he's made sort of two big speeches - one on the Senate floor and one yesterday coming out of a huddle with his own members - sort of reminding people what the stakes are. I mean, it's clear McConnell is worried and wants people to remember people aren't just voting for the president. They're voting for who's in control of the Senate. And all of these states that Domenico has on his map - I mean, these are a lot of the same places where Democrats could make gains.

MONTANARO: And I even wonder - in a place like Arizona, you have the Democratic candidate, Mark Kelly, that Democrats really are very high on and who's actually out-polling Joe Biden in his contests. You know, and Biden is beating Trump there pretty consistently by a small single-digit margin. You know, if Mark Kelly can bring out a lot of voters in that state, you could see a situation where you have somebody down-ballot bring the presidential candidate over the finish line.

WALSH: Right. And it wasn't that long ago that we - Arizona was famous for people like John McCain and Barry Goldwater. And now we're talking about another state-wide Senate seat potentially going to a Democrat.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about how to change the state of play in a presidential election in which most folks have already made up their minds.

And we're back. And, Deirdre, our team was recently interviewing a number of voters across the country, and it seems like one of the common themes is that so many of these voters have already made up their minds. And I guess I'm curious what you make of that, just how resolute voters are at this point.

WALSH: Right. We had reporters - NPR reporters and station reporters in a lot of these swing states that we've been talking about. And, really, people were very dug in. They were either very loyal and supportive of the president or determined to vote for Biden to get rid of President Trump. It seemed like there was a lot of sort of anti-Trump sentiment that helped Biden even though a lot of these people that our reporters talked to weren't necessarily enthusiastic about him personally. I mean - and the other thing I heard from a Democratic strategist who's advising the Biden campaign was they're basically looking at - what he said - seven competitive states and 30 congressional districts. He said - this was Steve Israel who was head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee a few years back - basically 85% of the people or more have made up their mind. So it's just really down to the point where they're targeting a very small number of people in a very small number of congressional seats and states.

MONTANARO: And that's a trend we've seen over time that's really expanded to this point where we're in this hyper-partisan atmosphere. And what some surveys have shown is that anywhere from just 6% to about 12% of people are truly undecided. So, you know, when you look at that, it's not hard to understand why, considering the strong feelings people have about President Trump, his approval rating has not budged very much. And even now when we're talking about the race tightening a little bit, it's really with people who were soft Trump voters who didn't approve as much of his handling of coronavirus who are now becoming a little bit more approving of the job he's doing or having to decide between Trump and Biden and going home. But, you know, that is a very small universe of voters. And when you listen and talk to some of these folks, their issue priorities are all over the map.

KHALID: I mean, I'm always struck by meeting an undecided voter really out there in the wild - a real undecided voter because, to your point, Domenico, so many people have already made up their minds. And I would say it's not like they're making up their minds in the last two months or three months. They made up their minds months and months ago, right? Like, you were talking to Democratic primary voters. And for the most part even then, regardless of who they were choosing, they were determined that they were going to support the nominee. And so I feel like here and there occasionally - very, very occasionally in a key sort of swing county will I meet some truly undecided voters. And what I will say too though is sometimes these people - I just actually got a text message the other day from a guy I'd met in Michigan who I would say is somewhat more of an undecided voter. And he told me that he was torn because he's not sure whether to actually just vote for Biden - he had voted for Republicans in the past, but he wants to kind of send a message to some Trump Republicans - or not vote at all, which goes against all of his beliefs. But I will say that is a common - more common sentiment - right? - like, not voting at all.

WALSH: That was a common thing that, I think, some of our team on the ground in Arizona and Texas found in talking to some younger voters, which are key, clearly, to both campaigns. And the Biden campaign is making a big push on younger voters - was the skepticism about whether or not their vote would even make a difference. And if people have that sentiment at this stage in the game, I mean, the campaigns really have their work cut out for them.

MONTANARO: Yeah. That's a tough group. I mean, a lot of those, you know, undecided, don't know which direction they're going to go - they are more of the disengaged voters and the less likely to actually go and vote. And, you know, I think that that just plays into the idea, the narrative that this is a base election, where you have to motivate your people to come out and try to make the margins a little slimmer with other places. But there is some evidence that younger voters this time around are more fired up for this election than in past ones.

WALSH: The other dynamic that we've seen in the race in the last couple of weeks is there's been just this fire hose of news events - from the Woodward book to more coronavirus news to, you know, flaps that the president has gotten himself into. And they don't appear to be moving voters very much. I mean, I think the president's trying to latch onto the law and order message, and the Biden campaign is trying to connect the economy to the coronavirus. But it doesn't seem like any one of these things or all taken together have made a huge change in the race.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for now. You can always find ways to stay connected with us by following the links in the description of this episode, including our private Facebook group, newsletter and workout playlist.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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