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Does Trump stand a chance?

Between the polls, the fundraising, public endorsements, and media stories, you would think that Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE has the presidency all wrapped up. But his own campaign is sounding the alarm about complacency, and there are murmurings from some quarters that Trump’s strength is vastly underestimated. Is the conventional wisdom as wrong in 2020 as it was in 2016?

Trump does have a chance, but he should not be considered the favorite.

Three key factors are different and in favor of Biden compared to 2016.

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First, Biden’s polling is better. He has managed to pop above 50 percent consistently while Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFederal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work Biden soars as leader of the free world Intercept DC bureau chief says Biden picks are 'same people' from Obama years MORE could never get there.

Second, Biden benefits from the mood of the country. In 2016 approximately 62 percent thought the country was on the wrong track — that is an indication that undecided voters will go against the incumbent, and Clinton was the de facto incumbent. In 2020, nearly two-thirds check the “wrong track” box. If that proportion opts for Biden, Trump will get swamped.

Third, Team Biden is running a far better campaign. They understand their candidate’s limitations and have run a disciplined race focused on the one thing that unites Democrats: hatred for Trump. The 2016 Clinton campaign was a comedy of errors with bad polling, poorly deployed resources and gaffes by the candidate that make Biden sound like a latter-day John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE.

The betting markets have Biden as the favorite (as of Oct. 22) at -227 or a 64.4 percent chance to win against a +175 or a 33.6 percent chance for Trump (that seems about right). To put that in a relatable context, a blackjack player will bust 62 percent of the time with a 16. Can Trump draw that elusive 5 card and beat Biden?

Four features might result in a Trump win: Bad turnout models, non-responsive Trump voters, mail-in voting problems, and Democratic early voting.

Bad turnout modeling means bad polling

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All polls assume a certain mix of voters. Getting the right age, gender, race, income, education and partisanship mix is vital to having accurate polls. Every poll has a series of quotas and, while the national demographic mix is well-established, partisanship is another matter.

Systematically underestimating Republican turnout or overestimating Democratic turnout introduces bias in addition to the normal margin of error. For example, while YouGov’s mix includes just 28 percent Republicans and 38.8 percent Democrats, the IBD/TIPP poll has 33.7 percent Republicans and 37.8 percent Democrats. That mix mostly accounts for Trump facing a four-point deficit the IBD poll and a nine-point deficit with YouGov. The difference is not necessarily bias, just two different polling groups making different turnout assumptions.

Non-responsive Trump voters

Historically, pollsters have assumed respondents’ refusals or lying is random and thus unimportant. But Republicans trust the media less and less, with pollsters potentially catching some of this blowback. But skewing the polls is not so simple. A Trump voter claiming to be a liberal for Biden just helps fill out the liberal quota.

Refusals could skew the polls either by suggesting lower turnout or by tilting the Republican and independent numbers. Consider if all independent Trump voters refuse to answer a survey, then only Biden voters are left. Extreme examples aside, systematic Trump voter refusal (or lying) would push up Biden’s percentage.

GOP consulting group Trafalgar claims the “hidden” Trump vote is large enough to swing the election to him — but they are just about the only ones making this claim. There is likely a hidden Trump vote, but alone is not likely enough to put him over the top.

Mail-in voting fumbles

Have you ever accidentally thrown out the electric bill with the junk mail, or forgot to mail a letter? How about filled out a form wrong or received mail that belongs to your neighbor? The answer is yes — and it’s not an illuminati conspiracy: it’s just normal, everyday accidents and mistakes.

Welcome to the world of voting by mail.

As opposed to voting in person, there are several points where voting by mail can fail — whether failure by the Postal Service or mistakes by the voter. Unlike at a polling place, there is no official assistance when you fill out your ballot. Not to mention that you should never underestimate human creativity when it comes to screwing up even the simplest task done for the first time.

Even where mail balloting has been done for years, the rejection rate is higher than for in-person voting. In Pennsylvania, a state new to mass mail-in voting, the rejection rate was over 4 percent in the 2018 election in Philadelphia — a Democratic-controlled city. The issue for the Democrats is whether the increase they can get from mail-in voting exceeds the various human errors and higher rejection rate over in-person voting.

Ironic that the party that considers itself victimized by paper ballots in Florida in 2000 (and subsequently pushed for electronic balloting across the country) has gone all-in on paper balloting in 2020. The party seems to forget how much voter error cost them.

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Early voting sets the bar

Why does every home team in baseball have a structural advantage? Last at bat. It pays to know how many runs you need to win, just as it is advantageous to know how far you are behind in the balloting.

Make no mistake, as a former campaign consultant, I want to bank as many votes as possible as early as possible. I do not want to risk people changing their minds, forgetting, or getting hit by a bus. But grabbing votes early does allow the opposition important intelligence.

As it stands now, Trump and the Republicans have a good idea how far behind they are in key states. This information allows them not only to chase people they know have not voted but also to redeploy resources away from states out of reach into more competitive locations.

Democrats can do the same, but all teams get a little complacent with a lead, and they don’t really know just how big a lead is enough. Both campaigns are conducting statistical modeling, but the Democrats are chasing a theory, while Republicans are chasing a concrete lead.

Conclusion 

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All the evidence points to a Biden lead.

Even if the polls are off by a few points, Biden is far enough ahead — right now — to win. In addition, if the “wrong track” undecided voters shift to Biden he will not only win, but the result will be a crushing victory.

It is possible that Trump could win, but he really needs to have all of the factors above break in his direction.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.