Biden holds steady polling lead over Trump ahead of first debate

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden holds a durable lead over President Donald Trump in national polling averages ahead of their first debate, where the contenders are set to discuss the Supreme Court, the economy and the coronavirus pandemic.

The debate, set for Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET, will be held in Ohio – a state that Trump won handily in 2016 but which has grown fiercely competitive in 2020.

Some recent polls:

While the polling gap might favor Biden, it’s the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that will decide the race. Trump won in 2016 despite Democrat Hillary Clinton’s more than 2.8 million edge in the popular vote.

But with just 40 days until Election Day, Biden also appears to be holding onto his leads in a series of crucial battleground states, albeit narrowly in some. 

Averages of polls from Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona give Biden a 3.8-point spread over Trump, according to RCP’s swing-state tracker. 

The closest races in that tracker are North Carolina and Florida, both of which Trump won against Clinton. Biden holds just a 0.5-point average lead in North Carolina and a 1.3-point lead in Florida.

The Sunshine State in particular, with its 29 electoral votes, has become a major focus for both campaigns.

Trump, who recently became a permanent resident of Florida, and Biden paid visits earlier this month, and both have made overtures to the high proportion of Latino voters there. 

The competition appeared to ramp up further following a handful of polls showing Trump leading Biden among Latinos in Florida.

Trump’s surprise move last week to announce $13 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico was viewed as an apparent play for Florida voters. Florida Republicans, meanwhile, are reportedly pushing Trump to select Barbara Lagoa as his next Supreme Court nominee, believing that the Cuban-American federal judge could boost the president’s chances in the state.

Some individual state polls do show Trump gaining since August. A Monmouth University poll of registered voters in Iowa, for instance, found Trump rising to a 50%-44% lead over Biden, though a separate model of likely voters from the same pollster put the race at a narrower 49%-46% spread for Trump. The poll of 402 registered voters in Iowa was conducted by phone between Friday and Tuesday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

One political analyst who isn’t changing the prediction he made in early August is historian Allan Lichtman, who has correctly called every presidential race since 1984.

“I absolutely stand by my prediction” that Trump will lose in 2020, Lichtman said in a phone interview with CNBC last week.

Lichtman’s method eschews the polls in favor of an analysis of 13 different categories, such as the state of the economy and the president’s policy record, dubbed the “Keys to the White House.” 

“The keys, they’re like a rock. They do not easily change, because they have the fundamentals, not the day-to-day of the campaign,” Lichtman said. “Trump isn’t going to suddenly morph into a different person.”

Despite Lichtman’s prediction and the steady gap between Trump and Biden in the polling averages, there are more than enough reasons not to jump to conclusions about what the outcome will be — or when it will even be known. 

Lingering fears about the spread of Covid-19, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S., have spurred some state leaders to expand access to mail-in voting, by lowering the bar for requesting an absentee ballot or by simply sending ballots out to registered voters statewide. The changes have led to concerns that Election Day itself will be fraught with confusion as large swaths of ballots may not be counted until days after Nov. 3.

Trump, who himself votes by absentee ballot, has railed against those mail-in voting plans, claiming without evidence that they will inevitably lead to widespread fraud. Far more Democrats than Republicans say they plan to vote by mail in the 2020 election, recent polls have shown.

On Wednesday, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power when asked by a reporter at the White House if he would make such a pledge, “win, lose or draw.”

“Well, we’ll have to see what happens. You know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said.

He added: “Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very — you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”

Trump has tied his doubts about voting integrity into his push to quickly fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday.

“I think this will end up in the Supreme Court and I think it’s very important that we have nine justices,” Trump said Wednesday.

At the same time, U.S. officials have warned that foreign actors are working to influence the outcome of the election. Last month, counterintelligence chief William Evanina said Russia is trying to “undermine” Biden’s candidacy, while China and Iran oppose Trump’s reelection.

FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress last week that Russia has been “very active” in its efforts to “denigrate” Biden.

Foreign election interference, along with voter suppression efforts, are the two things that “keep me up at night,” Lichtman told CNBC.

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