The polls point to a landslide for Biden but the popular vote is not what matters most in the US election system

Americans go to the polls on Tuesday to elect a president, senators for the upper house and representatives for the lower house. The presidential fight predominates but the other races are as important.  If we think MMP can be complicated, try the US electoral system.

All current polling suggests a landslide victory for Joe Biden in the presidential race, the Democrats in the Senate and again in the House of Representatives.  However, the outcome is not so precise.

On a summary of recent polls, Joe Biden, the Democrat candidate, leads President Donald Trump by an average 11 points and is scoring above 50%. Biden’s favourable rating stands at 46% (Trump is at 45%), and he is trusted on all issues including the economy by 45% with Trump hard on his heels at 44%.

Trump’s job approval rates are under 43% and he lags behind Biden in the three key swing states he carried in 2016 – Michigan where Biden is polling at 51% to Trump’s 44%, Pennsylvania 53% to 46% and Wisconsin 51% to 41%.

Polling is very close in the states carried by Trump in 2016 ranging from Alaska, Arizona through Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, Texas, North and South Carolina. So, both men have been campaigning heavily in all in the last week of the campaign – Trump hauling in the crowds and generally mask-less mass rallies while Biden’s gatherings are socially-distant with everyone masked.

Over the last week Barack Obama has weighed into the battle. His eloquence remains electrifying and a strong contrast to Biden’s hesitant and often rambling off-script addresses. 

Trump  appears to have recovered from his Covid-19 infection and has astounded even his critics with his evident energy and cracking pace around the country, aboard Air Force One of course while Biden uses a chartered Boeing 737, trains and buses

Biden and the Democrats have been furiously fund raising.  The most recently disclosed sums indicate that the party has $US171 million cash on hand compared with the Republicans $US66 million.

Early voting has been vigorous. By the start of this week some 60 million of the estimated 240 million eligible voters had cast their ballot. In the US voter turnout has never been particularly high. The highest, 82.6%, came in 1876 when Republican Rutherford Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden. In 1860, 81.8% turned out to elect Abraham Lincoln.

In 2016 138 million voted, around 58.1% of eligible voters. Rural voters supported Trump, reflecting a trend where the GOP has steadily gathered votes, up by 62% since  2008.  A majority of 53% of white women voted for Trump while Hillary Clinton was unable to hold the core states that Obama had won in 2008 including Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida.

But the popular polls are like the party vote in New Zealand – they don’t determine the outcome.  In the last general election, National won the party vote but didn’t hold power.

What matters in the US are votes in the Electoral College which elects the president and vice president. This was established by the US Constitution to ensure that small states were not disadvantaged. It is constituted every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president and vice president of the United States.

It has 538 electors, and an absolute majority of 270 electoral votes is required to win. Each state’s number of electors is equal to the combined total of its membership in the Senate and House of Representatives.

At present there are 100 senators and 435 representatives. In the Twenty-third Amendment, the District of Columbia is entitled to the number of electors it would have if it were a state, but no more than the least populated state, so it currently has three.

US territories are not entitled to any electors because they are not states.

Electors are selected on a state-by-state basis, determined by the laws of each state. Since the election of 1824 most states appoint their electors on a winner-take-all basis, based on the state-wide popular vote on Election Day.  In 2016 , while Clinton won 2.87 million more popular votes than Trump, he was elected by winning 304 votes in the college compared with Clinton’s 227.

There are eight critical swing states where the 2020 election will be won or lost: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These represent 127 electoral votes.

Missing from this list of swing states are familiar presidential battlegrounds like Colorado, Ohio and Virginia. Instead it includes Arizona and Georgia, which haven’t voted for a Democrat since the 1990s, and Minnesota, which hasn’t voted for a Republican in nearly 50 years.

Trump can afford to lose 36 electoral votes and still win the election. He has failed, though, to turn the election into a referendum on Biden. Rather, his handling of the Coronavirus pandemic has become the predominant issue.

In a close second place is the race for the Senate, where each state elects two senators. At present the Senate is held by the Republicans with 53 seats while the Democrats have 45 and there are two independents who generally vote with the Democrats.

In 13 of 16 close states, the Republicans are polling under 50% by comparison with three states where the Democrats are polling under 50%.  

To gain control of the Senate, the Democrats need to have a net gain of four seats – or three if Biden wins and his vice president, Kamala Harris, who would chair the senate, can break a tie.  The Democrats are targeting 13 states all won by Trump in 2016.

The lower house is currently held by the Democrats with 223 seats.; the  Republicans have 197 seats, there is one Libertarian and there are five vacancies.  There seems little doubt the Democrats will retain control.

The Republicans hope to retain the White House despite the volatile, unpredictable and diversionary leadership of Trump. They are worried over the Senate.

The Democrats hope to win all three elections. Their second choice is losing the White House but winning the Senate where they could effectively stymie a Trump second term.

Tuesday promises to be a long day and night. Law enforcement agencies are ready to tackle voter intimidation, the Supreme Court with its new Justice Amy Coney Barrett is on hand. Most hope there isn’t a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College because this means the result will be determined by Congress.

In that event, the House of Representatives would choose the president and the Senate the vice president. 

The House votes differently from the Senate. In the vote for vice president, each Senator has one vote. But in the House each state has only one vote for president and a presidential candidate needs to win only 26 states, which would be a shoo-in for Trump.

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