The Electoral College question looming over 2024

There are two scenarios that could explain where the 2024 election stands right now. In one, President Joe Biden is locked in something close to a 50-50 contest with former President Donald Trump.

In the other, Biden is trailing by more — maybe much more — than the national polls suggest. 

The answer depends largely on whether Trump and Republicans have maintained the advantage in the Electoral College that they held in the last two presidential elections.

In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 percentage points — but Trump’s performance among certain demographics and in certain states meant he defeated her in the Electoral College, 306 to 232. (Because of “faithless” electors, the final history-book margin later changed to 304 to 227.)

In 2020, Biden bested Trump in the popular vote by 4.5 percentage points, getting him the same number of Electoral College votes Trump won four years earlier — 306.

And if that trend carries over to 2024, Biden might have to win the popular vote by 5 points or more to get the 270-plus Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.

But a two-election trend is no guarantee of future results. And there’s another school of thought about 2024 that the GOP’s Electoral College edge may not be as pronounced, as Trump has made gains with Black and Latino voters, including in states like California and New York that won’t come close to deciding the presidential election. Even slightly better margins for Trump in those big, blue states could bring the national vote and the tipping-point state vote into closer alignment.

The question, however, is how sizable that decrease might be — if there is any. It’s an important piece of information to help gauge what the national polls really mean right now, but it’s also shrouded in mystery. 

“With Trump’s improvements among Hispanic and Black voters, the pro-GOP bias may decline by 1 to 2 points — but it won’t be erased,” said David Wasserman, senior editor and elections analyst at the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.

“In other words, I think Trump could lose the popular vote by 2 points in November and still have an excellent chance of carrying Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada — which is why I view Trump as a pretty obvious favorite at the moment,” Wasserman added.

The case for the GOP maintaining its Electoral College edge

When political analysts discuss Electoral College bias, they’re referring to the difference between the margins in the popular vote and in the “tipping point” state — that is, the decisive state that carried the victorious candidate across the 270-electoral vote threshold needed to win the presidency.

Over much of the last 70 years, the tipping point states have closely tracked to the popular vote.

In 2012, for example, Barack Obama won the popular vote by almost 4 percentage points, and he carried his tipping point state, Colorado, by more than 5 points.

But that changed in the Trump era, when the Electoral College bias grew to the highest level since 1948 — in the Republican Party’s direction.

Part of the explanation was Trump’s particularly strong performance among white working-class voters in the Midwest and Rust Belt battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Another explanation was Democrats’ overperformance in states like California and New York, which aren’t key to deciding presidential contests in our current political landscape.

“Biden won by roughly 7 million votes [in 2020],” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, the GOP half of the bipartisan team that conducts the NBC News poll. “He won California by 5 million votes; he won New York by 2 million votes.”

“This means in 48 other states and D.C., the vote was essentially tied,” McInturff added.

Also, Democratic improvement in Texas — going from 41% of the vote in 2012 to 46% in 2020 — further underscores how, in the Trump era, three of the most populous states have swung in the Democrats’ direction relative to the nation.

And with Biden and Trump set to be on the presidential ballot again in 2024, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see both overperformances — Trump’s with white working-class voters, Biden’s with voters in places like California and New York — repeat themselves.

The case for the GOP losing its Electoral College edge

A year ago, however, political number crunchers Nate Cohn of The New York Times and J. Miles Coleman and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics surmised that 2024 could be different from 2016 and 2020.

With national polls showing Trump faring better with Black and Latino voters, and with Democrats performing better in the 2022 midterms in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania than in California and New York (relative to past results), they argued that the pro-GOP Electoral College bias could be shrinking.

“If in fact Trump is improving with young and diverse voters — a debatable proposition, I think, but this is what the polls show now — it may simply give him better margins in states he’s already likely to win or lose, like California, Florida and New York,” Kondik told NBC News.

“So I do think it’s possible that the pro-GOP bias in the Electoral College could be smaller in 2024 than 2020,” he added.

Indeed, recent high-quality California polls show Biden ahead of Trump in the state by about 20 points in a head-to-head matchup, down from Biden’s nearly 30-point winning margin in California in 2020.

As Cohn put it in his New York Times article last year: “At the very least, tied national polls today don’t mean Mr. Trump leads in the states likeliest to decide the presidency.”

Where the battleground polling stands right now

Currently, Biden and Trump are locked in a competitive contest nationally, according to head-to-head polls, but Trump has held a small, yet consistent, advantage in several of the top battleground states, although those results are usually within the margin of error.

And polling averages do hint at a pro-Trump Electoral College bias in some battlegrounds, but not others. Now, a big caveat: Using polling averages to measure exactly where a presidential contest currently stands can be problematic, because of the polls’ different methodologies, their different margins of error and their different reputations. But they can be useful to take a broad view at how the national polls might be different from battleground surveys.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Biden and Trump are essentially tied in the national polls.

They’re also essentially tied in the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, suggesting little to no pro-GOP bias in those states — a shift from the final results in the last few elections, when those states tilted several points to the right of the national vote.

But Trump is ahead in other battleground states, including in Michigan, which some analysts believe could be the tipping point state in 2024.

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