Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” The opening line of Thomas Paine’s Revolutionary War pamphlet series, “The American Crisis,” resonates with Americans as much today as it did during the bleak winter of 1776. We, like our patriot ancestors, are locked in a struggle each side believes it must win to preserve the freedom and human dignity that are the natural rights of every American. Our souls are bowed under the pressure of the conflict, but each side remains resolute, even as we feel our nation’s bonds weaken under the strain. All eagerly desire victory on Tuesday, and fear what might befall them if they are defeated.

Democrats need not fear. This, my sixth published biennial election prediction essay, is perhaps my easiest: Former vice president Joe Biden will win comfortably unless we experience the greatest polling failure in modern history. Democrats will also gain control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House. While not the landslide that some hope for, Democrats will simultaneously control the presidency and both houses of Congress for only the third time since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. That alone is a historic achievement that will give them the upper hand to determine the next stage of our ongoing national crisis.

My presidential race forecast

Popular vote prediction

52.5%

45.3%

Biden

(range 51-54)

Trump

(range 43-46.5)

Other

2016 results

Clinton

48%

Trump

46%

Other

Electoral college prediction

350

188

270 to win

Biden

(range 289-375)

Trump

(range 163-249)

2016 results

Clinton

232

Trump

306

My forecast for the 2020

electoral college map

No Republican gains, and the states highlighted in yellow will shift to Democrats.

Shifting states/districts

AZ, NC, FL, GA, WI, MI, PA, NE-2

Henry Olsen/The Washington Post

Popular vote prediction

52.5%

45.3%

Biden

(range 51-54)

Trump

(range 43-46.5)

Other

2016 results

Clinton

48%

Trump

46%

Other

Electoral college prediction

350

188

270 to win

Biden

(range 289-375)

Trump

(range 163-249)

2016 results

Clinton

232

Trump

306

My forecast for the 2020

electoral college map

No Republican gains, and the states highlighted in yellow will shift to Democrats.

Shifting states/districts

AZ, NC, FL, GA, WI, MI, PA, NE-2

Henry Olsen/The Washington Post

Popular vote prediction

Electoral college prediction

52.5%

45.3%

350

188

270 to win

Biden

(range 51-54)

Trump

(range 43-46.5)

Biden

(range 289-375)

Trump

(range 163-249)

Other

2016 results

2016 results

Clinton

48%

Trump

46%

Clinton

232

Trump

306

Other

My forecast for

the 2020 electoral

college map

No Republican gains, and the states highlighted in yellow will shift to Democrats.

Shifting states/districts

AZ, NC, FL, GA, WI, MI, PA, NE-2

Henry Olsen/The Washington Post

My forecast for congressional races

Senate prediction

50

48

50 to win

DemocratIC

republican

2 Georgia seats go to Jan. runoff.

2018 results

Democratic

47

Republican

53

Note: Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie

Sanders of Vermont are independents who

caucus with the Democrats.

Shifting states in the Senate

Democratic gain

Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine

Republican gain

Alabama

House prediction

246

189

218 to win

Democratic

republican

2018 results

Democratic

235

Republican

199

Shifting seats

Democratic gain

NC-2, NC-6

CA-25, TX-23, TX-24, MO-2, GA-7, OH-1, PA-10, NY-24, NJ-2

AK, MT, AZ-6, TX-10, TX-21, TX-22, CO-3, MI-6, MN-1, AR-2, IN-5, MI-3, VA-5, PA-1, NY-2, IL-13, NC-8, NC-11, NE-2

Republican

gain

MN-7

CA-21, UT-4, NM-2, OK-5, FL-26, SC-1,

NY-11, NY-22, IA-1

Certain

Likely

Possibly

Henry Olsen/The Washington Post

Senate prediction

50

48

50 to win

DemocratIC

republican

2 Georgia seats go to Jan. runoff.

2018 results

Democratic

47

Republican

53

Note: Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of

Vermont are independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Shifting states in the Senate

Democratic gain

Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine

Republican gain

Alabama

House prediction

246

189

218 to win

Democratic

republican

2018 results

Democratic

235

Republican

199

Shifting seats

Democratic gain

NC-2, NC-6

CA-25, TX-23, TX-24,

MO-2, GA-7, OH-1,

PA-10, NY-24, NJ-2

AK, MT, AZ-6, TX-10,

TX-21, TX-22, CO-3,

MI-6, MN-1, AR-2,

IN-5, MI-3, VA-5, PA-1,

NY-2, IL-13, NC-8,

NC-11, NE-2

Republican gain

MN-7

CA-21, UT-4, NM-2,

OK-5, FL-26, SC-1,

NY-11, NY-22, IA-1

Certain

Likely

Possibly

Henry Olsen/The Washington Post

Senate prediction

Shifting states in the Senate

50

48

Democratic gain

Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine

Republican gain

Alabama

50 to win

2 Georgia

seats go

to Jan.

runoff.

DemocratIC

republican

2018 results

Democratic

47

Republican

53

Note: Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are independents who caucus

with the Democrats.

House prediction

Shifting seats

246

189

Democratic gain

NC-2, NC-6

CA-25, TX-23,

TX-24, MO-2, GA-7,

OH-1, PA-10,

NY-24, NJ-2

AK, MT, AZ-6,

TX-10, TX-21,

TX-22, CO-3, MI-6,

MN-1, AR-2, IN-5,

MI-3, VA-5, PA-1,

NY-2, IL-13, NC-8,

NC-11, NE-2

Republican gain

MN-7

CA-21, UT-4, NM-2,

OK-5, FL-26, SC-1,

NY -11, NY-22, IA-1

218 to win

Certain

Democratic

republican

Likely

2018 results

Democratic

235

Republican

199

Possibly

Henry Olsen/The Washington Post

Biden’s win: Common sense

For all the disorder and uncertainty from the pandemic and our summer of racial discontent, Biden’s victory will be the result of long-established truths about American politics. To borrow from Paine’s most famous work, it will be a case of common sense.

It is common sense that a president running for reelection will be judged on whether he handled the job well enough to deserve another chance; reelections are always referendums on the president. It is common sense that a president deemed to have failed his biggest challenges will have lost his fellow citizens’ trust. President Trump has failed both tests in the eyes of the American people and will lose as a result.

Trump’s job approval ratings show this. Historically, presidents who run for reelection receive a share of the popular vote that is remarkably close to their final job approval rating. The RealClearPolitics polling average has tracked Trump’s job approval throughout his presidency. He is the first president to have never received a 50 percent rating; indeed, he has never come close. Trump’s highest marks came this year between March 26 and April 2, when he topped 47 percent. As of Sunday morning, his job approval stood at 45 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. Given that there won’t be as much third-party voting this time around, that just won’t be good enough to win.

Trump’s approval ratings

Percentage of Americans who say that they

approve of president Trump.

50%

Peak 47%

45

44.4%

40

35

30

Jan.

2017

Jan.

2018

Jan.

2019

Jan.

2020

Oct. 29

Source: RealClearPolitics polling average

The Washington Post

Trump’s approval ratings

Percentage of Americans who say that they

approve of President Trump

50%

Peak 47%

45

44.4%

40

35

30

Jan.

2017

Jan.

2018

Jan.

2019

Jan.

2020

Oct. 29

Source: RealClearPolitics polling average

The Washington Post

Trump’s approval ratings

Percentage of Americans who say that they approve of President Trump.

50%

Peak 47%

45

44.4%

40

35

30

Jan.

2017

Jan.

2018

Jan.

2019

Jan.

2020

Oct. 29

Source: RealClearPolitics polling average

The Washington Post

Trump’s mediocre handling of the coronaviruspandemic probably sealed his fate. It’s no coincidence that his high-water mark came at the pandemic’s onset. Politicians around the world saw their approval ratings rise as scared citizens “rallied around the flag” to support their leaders. Trump’s handling of the pandemic was initially viewed favorably by more than half of Americans, according to the RealClearPolitics poll average. But it has steadily sunk since then, thanks to his public gaffes (injecting bleach) and his marked belief that keeping the economy open was more important than controlling the virus.

How Trump’s approval rating

compares with recent presidents

Jimmy

Carter

Ronald

Reagan

George

H.W. Bush

80%

60

40

Trump

Trump

Trump

20

0

1500

0

1500

0

1500

Days since inauguration

Bill

Clinton

George

W. Bush

Barack

Obama

80%

60

40

Trump

Trump

Trump

20

0

1500

0

1500

0

1500

Days since inauguration

Sources: Various pollsters, NYT Upshot,

RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight

The Washington Post

How Trump’s approval rating compares

with recent presidents

Jimmy

Carter

Ronald

Reagan

George H.W.

Bush

80%

60

40

Trump

Trump

Trump

20

0

1500

0

1500

0

1500

Days since inauguration

Bill

Clinton

George W.

Bush

Barack

Obama

80%

60

40

Trump

Trump

Trump

20

0

1500

0

1500

0

1500

Days since inauguration

Sources: Various pollsters, NYT Upshot, RealClearPolitics,

FiveThirtyEight

The Washington Post

How Trump’s approval rating compares with recent presidents

Jimmy Carter

Ronald Reagan

George H.W. Bush

80%

60

40

Trump

Trump

Trump

20

0

1500

0

1500

0

1500

Days since inauguration

Bill Clinton

George W. Bush

Barack Obama

80%

60

40

Trump

Trump

Trump

20

0

1500

0

1500

0

1500

Days since inauguration

Sources: Various pollsters, NYT Upshot, RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight

The Washington Post

Trump’s failure stands in notable contrast to his global peers. They have mostly sustained their high ratings, and their political parties have benefited. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won her national elections in a historic landslide last month, and three Canadian provincial premiers — twoconservative, one progressive — all won their recent elections with substantially improved results. Trump could have reaped the rewards of a grateful nation. Instead, he sowed the wind and will reap the whirlwind.

Despite all of these obstacles, Trump still had an outside shot in late September. His job approval ratings had been steadily climbing from their mid-July nadir and stood at roughly 45 percent on the eve of the first presidential debate. His task was difficult but clear: make the case that he deserved a second term despite all that had happened, and raise doubts about Biden’s ability to do better. Most political analysts believe that if Trump loses the popular vote by three points or less, he could still win the electoral college. To do that, he needed to get his approval rating above 47 percent. Instead, at that Sept. 29 debate, Trump displayed a level of boorishness that was shocking even for him. His rise halted, and his approval ratings dropped back. Trump’s second debate performance was more measured, but the damage was done.

Polling data among key demographics all show why Trump will fall short. In 2016, Trump won among independent voters by a narrow margin, 46 percent to 42 percent. National polling averages today show Biden carrying independents 52 percent to Trump’s 41 percent, with 7 percent going to third-party candidates. And while Trump has attracted support from 5 percent of Democrats, Biden has pulled in 7 percent of Republicans. Those shifts are why Biden is polling above Hillary Clinton’s levels at this stage of the campaign and Trump remains mired in the mid-40s.

[The final Power Ranking: Here’s who the pundits think are going to win — everything]

Trump’s decline is almost exclusively among White voters. Polls suggest he will do slightly better among Hispanics and Blacks than he did four years ago. But Trump is set to lose college-educated Whites, once a Republican-leaning group, by 14 percentage points, 56 percent to 42 percent. Among his core constituency, Whites without a college degree, the president is ahead 59 percent to 38 percent, compared with leading 64 percent to 28 percent in 2016. Given his weakness among non-White voters, and the rising share of non-Whites in the electorate, Trump needs to carry Whites by more than 15 points to have a chance. His current lead among them is only about 7½ points, far short of where he needs to be.

This becomes clear when we look at the electorate’s likely composition. Data from the PewResearch Center, exit polls from 2016 and 2018, and a recent projection from the survey firm Echelon Insights show that White voters should count for 71 percent to 74 percent of the 2020 electorate. Even the most favorable demographic option for Trump gives Biden almost a six-point lead with Trump’s current weakness among Whites. Less favorable assumptions give Biden a lead as high as nine points.

We reach the same result if we look at the electorate through a partisan lens. Polling data show the partisan composition of the electorate has been remarkably stable in recent years. Democrats make up roughly 36 percent of all voters, while Republicans and independents each hover around 32 percent. If we apply current polling margins to these breakdowns, Biden would have a lead of 52.4 percent to Trump’s 44 percent, only slightly larger than the 52.6-to-45.3 lead Biden receives from the median racial demographic estimate.

These breakdowns assume that undecided voters tend to break against the incumbent by a significant margin. In the past, I have allocated 70 percent of undecideds to a challenger and only 30 percent to the incumbent. Assuming about 2.2 percent of all voters will cast ballots for a third-party or write-in candidate (that would be less than half of the 6 percent that did so in 2016 but slightly higher than the 1.9 percent in 2012), that means only a bit more than 1 percent of voters remained undecided prior to my allocation.

If Biden wins by a bit more than seven points, he will win many states that Trump carried in 2016. Since Clinton won the popular vote by two points in 2016, Biden’s share of the vote represents a five-point swing in the Democrats’ favor. Moreover, because those gains are coming almost entirely among White voters, the shift will be larger in the heavily White states in the Midwest that Trump shockingly carried last time. This means Biden will easily triumph in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. A shift of this margin also means that perennially close Florida should also shift into Biden camp, as will Arizona, where Trump won by only 3.5 percent in 2016. This would mirror the Democratic victory there in 2018’s marquee Senate race.

Three other states are on the cusp of going to Biden: North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia. Iowa should go narrowly for Trump, although that could change if Biden wins nationally by even a slightly larger margin. Georgia will be extremely close if Biden wins by a bit more than seven points, and Trump should narrowly prevail if Biden’s national margin drops much below seven points. Biden should win North Carolina at this level, but he is in danger of losing it to Trump if his lead drops to about six points nationally.

Biden should also gain an electoral vote in states that award electors to the winner in each of the state’s congressional seats and could win a second. Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District encompasses Omaha and its suburbs, and Biden should win that under any of these scenarios. Maine’s 2nd Congressional District is a very rural, White and working-class seat that Trump carried by more than 10 points in 2016. Polls there show Biden narrowly ahead, and he should carry it if he wins by eight to nine points nationally. The race here is a toss-up at a seven-point margin, and Trump should carry it if Biden wins nationally by much less than that.

Where my projection could go wrong

No forecast is without the possibility of error, and Trump fans certainly believe I will be wrong. They place their hopes in the idea that the polls are wrong, as they believe the polls were in 2016, and that there are millions of “shy Trump voters” who either lie to pollsters or aren’t answering surveys at all. We can’t discount that possibility entirely, especially after polls in countries such as Australia and Britainproved to be massively off in recent elections. Nonetheless, we are not likely to see a large enough polling error to rescue Trump’s reelection.

Polling error tends to occur in one of two circumstances: when undecided voters break late in one direction, and when certain demographics are underrepresented in the polling samples. U.S. pollsters certainly underrepresented Whites without a college degree in their 2016 samples, which is why some polls were off. Regional difficulties in contacting certain voter groups lead to consistent and predictable errors, as the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman recently showed. But that is not usually the cause of significant and consequential national polling errors.

The late break of undecided and third-party voters toward Trump, however, was the bigger reason Trump surprised the pundit class in 2016. Most, but not all, analysts failed to account for this possibility. This, more than any other concern, is the biggest reason for significant polling errors on the rare occasions they occur. There’s evidence that a similar factor was at play in the 2019 Australian and 2015 and 2017 British elections, as undecided voters moved sharply in one direction on the eve of the vote.

This is unlikely to be a factor on Tuesday because there are almost no undecided votes left to shift. Polls have shown for months that most voters have decided whom to support and are not persuadable. Those that are persuadable still lean heavily in one direction or another. That’s the major reason the polls have been so stable all year and why they have been uniformly against Trump. Even if every single undecided voter unexpectedly backed Trump, he would still be outside the range of victory in nearly every national poll.

That means that for Trump to win, millions of people who have rarely, if ever, voted would need to turn out and back him. These people are so politically disconnected they likely would not answer polls, and many would never have registered to vote before. That’s what GOP-leaning polling firms such as the Trafalgar Group and Susquehanna contend they have uncovered, which leads them to produce polls that show Trump much closer nationally and in swing states than the more conventional polling averages. There’s some evidence in registration data that this might happen, but we can’t know for sure whether they are correct until Election Day.

Senate and House races

Congressional races are increasingly determined on a partisan, rather than individual, basis. A recent Pew poll found that about 80 percent of all voters planned to vote a straight ticket for one of the major parties; only 4 percent planned to vote for Trump or Biden and for a congressional candidate of the opposite party. Thus, determining congressional outcomes rests almost entirely on determining which presidential candidate will capture the state or district in question.

Biden will win three states held by Republican senators — Arizona, Colorado and Maine — while Trump will win Democratic-held Alabama. Iowa will be extremely close if Biden wins by seven; I’m projecting a narrow win for Republican incumbent Joni Ernst, but don’t be surprised if she loses. Democrat Cal Cunningham should win if Biden carries North Carolina, however, and that would give Democrats control of the Senate.

If Biden wins by eight or more points nationally, Democrats should carry both of those Republican-held Senate seats. Biden should very narrowly carry Georgia if he wins by seven overall, but Georgia requires senators to win at least 50 percent of the vote to win the seat in November. If no one does that, a runoff is held in January between the top two finishers. Georgia is holding two Senate elections on Tuesday, one of which is a special election with multiple candidates, and I think both races will go to a runoff. In the other race, if Biden wins nationally by nine points or more, Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff should capture his seat outright. If Biden wins by six or less, Trump is likely to carry Georgia and Republican incumbent David Perdue should prevail.

House races strongly favor the Democrats because of the overall national climate. House Democrats carried the national vote in 2018 by roughly eight points, and Biden should win almost all of the 40 seats they gained from Republicans in that election. The former vice president is also likely to win many of the House districts Republicans kept but that Trump won narrowly in 2016. There are a few heavily Republican or GOP-leaning seats that Republicans will take back, but the number will pale next to the total Democrats pick up. As with the national race, most of the seats Democrats will gain are in suburban areas with large numbers of college-educated voters who are abandoning Trump’s GOP in droves.

Upholding the ‘Rights of Man’

This outcome will not automatically provide the national unity that Biden says he wants to restore. Our nation is fractured because people disagree on important questions of how to live. Democrats have one view about what constitutes human rights while Republicans have another, and these differences are not easily amenable to compromise. The recent fight over the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court placed one aspect of this dispute in plain view. Debates over how to address climate change and the coronavirus pandemic are likely to put other aspects on display early in 2021.

But Tuesday’s vote will likely give Democrats the upper hand as our ongoing crisis proceeds to the next stage. Throughout history, battles over deeply held beliefs and values such as the one we are now experiencing have tended not to end well. The warring sides either decide to separate, or one side vanquishes the other so completely that it unilaterally sets the terms of peace. Neither outcome would be good for a genuinely United States of America.

In his appendix to “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine wrote something that became one of Reagan’s favorite quotes: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Taken literally, the sentiment would end in bloodshed and revolution. But that’s not how Reagan read it; he viewed Paine’s idea as an expression of optimism about the American spirit. So long as Americans remained true to their political heritage, the natural equality of each and every human being, Reagan believed every generation of Americans would always rise to meet their “rendezvous with destiny.”

Tuesday’s victory will give Joe Biden and the Democratic Party the opportunity to lead us toward that rendezvous. Let us pray they use the chance wisely.

About this story

Graphics by Sergio Peçanha and David Byler.

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