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The Memo: Trump retains narrow path to victory

Victory for President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE in Tuesday’s election remains a distinct possibility, despite the fact that he lags in national polls.

There is no question that Trump is the underdog against his Democratic opponent Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE

Biden has several realistic routes to the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the White House, and a Democratic landslide is also possible.

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But there are plausible scenarios that give Trump a narrow path to a second term — and they are giving Democrats sleepless nights. 

Above all, Democrats are traumatized by the memory of what happened four years ago, when Trump won a shock victory over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonValadao unseats Cox in election rematch Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work MORE, despite polling projections that showed her as the overwhelming favorite.

“It’s hard to forget the nightmare of 2016 and how wrong things were, so that’s a cloud that lingers over this election,” said one Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Trump’s simplest and easiest route to victory this year is to hold onto Florida and Pennsylvania, both of which he won in 2016. Florida is, as usual, a tight race — Biden led there by 1.2 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average on Friday afternoon.

Some Florida Democrats have expressed concern about Biden’s standing with Latinos, especially in the Cuban American community. There are also some signs that voter enthusiasm in Trump-friendly parts of Florida is roughly equal to the anti-Trump fervor in Democratic strongholds.

Biden’s polling lead in Pennsylvania is bigger, at 3.6 percentage points — but that’s hardly an invincible margin, especially if state-level polls are off as they were in 2016. The president has three events scheduled for Pennsylvania on Saturday.

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If Trump won Florida and Pennsylvania, he could afford to lose two key states, Michigan and Wisconsin, so long as he held onto the other states that he won in 2016 — including Arizona, where he is under significant pressure.

This scenario gives Republicans hope, despite all the polls in which the president is trailing. Some in the GOP also take a measure of encouragement from Biden’s travel schedule, which included a stop in Minnesota on Friday. Clinton carried Minnesota four years ago and the Trump campaign has targeted it as a rare pick-up opportunity this year.

“Despite the polls, it feels like [Trump] has a 50-50 shot at winning,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “Everyone is holding their breath. … The Biden team is not measuring the drapes for the White House. If you look at where they are going in the last few days, they are nervous.”

For all that, Biden is the clear favorite. 

He is running against the most polarizing president of modern times during a pandemic that has claimed more than 225,000 American lives. He retains leads, slender or otherwise, in the vast majority of battleground states. He is competitive in southern states such as Georgia and Texas in a way that no other Democrat has been in a generation.

Independent experts note that Michigan and Wisconsin appear to be slipping out of reach for the president — a trend which reduces his options, even if it is not a fatal blow.

"If he doesn't get over the top in Wisconsin and Michigan, then he has got to hang onto all those other states [including Florida and Pennsylvania] and either get Arizona, or miss in Arizona but pick off Nevada," said Steve Kornacki, national political correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.

Even some Democrats scarred by Clinton’s 2016 loss insist this time really is different. 

They point to a number of factors, including the consistency of Biden’s polling lead and the fact that, unlike Clinton, he has never been broadly disliked. 

“Several things are different,” John Podesta, who served as Clinton’s campaign chairman, told The Hill earlier this week. “One is that — somewhat remarkably, given all the advertising hits you take — Biden’s favorability remains in positive territory.”

Podesta also noted that Biden draws more than 50 percent of all voters’ support in many polls — something which Clinton almost never did. And, he added, Biden has “much less of a third-party problem” — a reference to the 2016 candidacies of the Libertarian Party's Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonOn The Trail: Making sense of Super Poll Sunday Polarized campaign leaves little room for third-party hopefuls The Memo: Trump retains narrow path to victory MORE and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, who together won almost 6 million votes.

Lanny Davis, a longtime Democratic strategist and a strong supporter of the Clintons, highlighted the narrowness of Trump’s victory in 2016. The crucial aggregate margin across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin was approximately 77,000 votes.

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Davis also noted the extraordinary developments in the closing days of the 2016 campaign — including the controversial intervention of then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon The new marshmallow media in the Biden era McCabe defends investigation of Trump before Senate committee: We had 'many reasons' MORE — and said nothing similar had occurred this year.

“With no Comey letter — and with the escalation of the COVID crisis, which [Trump] denies — it is virtually impossible that Joe Biden won’t do 70,000 votes better in those three states,” said Davis, who is also a columnist for The Hill.

Nervousness is by no means confined to the Democratic side. A Trump defeat in Texas, for example, would be catastrophic not just for his chances but for the GOP writ large. A loss in Georgia would also be a stinging blow.

“We'll all be watching Georgia. If you lose Georgia, you’re done,” said one GOP strategist with ties to the White House.

More broadly, the political world is grappling with the sheer uncertainty of an election revolving around Trump, and being held amid unprecedented circumstances.

"I know it's not much of a prediction, but the range of possible electoral vote outcomes here is far and wide," said Kornacki, "from Biden wins with 413 electoral votes to Biden loses with 264 — and anything in-between."

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With just days to go, Democrats know Biden is in the driver’s seat. But they are torturing themselves with all kinds of questions — about black turnout, and Trump’s ground game, and voter suppression, and whether they could be swamped by high Republican turnout on Election Day itself.

But one question looms over every other: What if the polls are wrong?

“Pollsters don’t want to admit a simple fucking fact: there is some percentage of silent Trump voters,” said the Democratic strategist who requested anonymity. “There are people who are not going to tell you that they are going to vote for Trump. We can pretend it’s not a fact. But it is. 

“The real question is, how many of them are there?”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.