We're in Pretty Good Shape

From my 2020 Presidential Tracker.  Don't worry; it's not restricted to Biden.  You pick any frontrunner you like.

The pundits are there for the clicks, but not me.  I'm here to give you a bit of comfort, and to help you form a plan of action, and with that said, things are looking pretty goddamn good for the 2020 election. If you're anything like me, you want a progressive leading the charge, but more importantly, you want Trump out of there at all costs.  And we need to beat him decisively, for a couple of reasons.

First, a big enough margin will likely carry the Senate as well. It takes no imagination at all to picture McConnell preventing any and all nominations from a President Warren.   Second, as has been noted since the last election, Trump will doubtless contest the legitimacy of the election no matter what happens, and he can do a lot of damage on the way out.  Put another way:
With that in mind, here are three reasons to be optimistic about where we are now:

1. Unpopular Presidents Don't Get Reelected

I'm going to stipulate that Trump isn't magic. He's staggeringly unpopular, and has been throughout his occupation of the Oval Office.  Here's my approval tracker of high quality polls:
People really don't like him.
By my estimate, Trump currently has a net approval of -15, and as you can see, it's been very stable.

Or, just look at Gallup, which has regularly polled presidential approval for all presidents since 1937 (FDR, whose lowest approval was higher than Trump has ever achieved):

And it's not getting any better.
Trump is the only president to never break 50% approval ever. He's not particular close, and it's not getting any better for him.  The latest Gallup has him at a net approval -18.

And that unpopularity cost the Republican Party during the midterms.  41 seats in the House, and a popular vote margin of nearly 10 million, along with losing or failing to flip a bunch of Senate seats with the most favorable map in a generation.

I wrote a post a few months ago looking at incumbent popularity and found, unsurprisingly, that unpopular presidents tend to lose, and the more unpopular they are, they more they tend to lose. Pundits tend to go on about the economy being a great predictor for reelection, but the truth is that if the economy is good, a president tends to be popular, so it's already baked in.

The plot below shows the net approval just before the election, and the popular vote margins.  In every postwar reelection campaign, underwater presidents lost.  And Trump has never not been underwater.

Things aren't likely to change very much between now and Election Day. Per 538, Trump has a lower net approval than any president except for Carter (who, lest you forget, lost badly in 1980 against Reagan) for as long as this sort of thing has been computed.
Trump is in purple.  It's bad for him, real bad.
"But," the argument goes, "Trump was unpopular in 2015 and 2016, and he still won!"  This goes to the "Trump is magical/lucky" view of the world.  After all, were it not for drawing an (unfairly maligned) unpopular opponent, a compliant media, a corrupt head of the FBI (screw you, Comey), and drawing an inside straight on Election Day, we wouldn't be having this conversation.  And still, it was very, very close.

So how do things look now, compared to 4 years ago?

2. Polls This Early Out Are Actually Pretty Predictive

It's easy to forget how things actually looked at this point in the 2016 election cycle.  Talk to anyone about the polls now, and you'll either get a claim that polls are meaningless (they're not), or that they're meaningless this far out, and that Hillary was destroying Trump four years ago (she wasn't), but still lost.

Very early on, nobody took Trump seriously (and it would have been for the best had it stayed that way), and so in June or July of 2015, Hillary really did consistently lead by double digits, but by Fall, things had calmed down, despite the fact that the primaries and the conventions were still a long way off.

Taking data from realclearpolitics (not ideal, since their inclusion criteria are a bit vague, but they keep good records), and taking a simple average of the August/September polls, we find:

  • Aug-Sep 2015 - Clinton +4.0 over Trump (11 polls). She won by 2.1
  • Aug-Sep 2011 - Obama +1.3 over Romney (23 polls). He won by 3.9
  • Aug-Sep 2007 - Obama +4.3 over McCain (4 polls). He won by 7.3

All 3 picked the correct popular vote winner, and all were pretty close to the final result 14 months later.  In other words, in all 3 cases, if you knew the eventual nominees, you could already get a very good sense of how the race was going to turn out. The RMS error was only $\pm$ 2.5 points. Also, Hillary was leading, but not dominating Trump by this point in 2015, contrary to conventional wisdom.

How about our current frontrunners?

All 3 are leading, but the astute observer might note that Warren's lead is about the same that Clinton's was at this point in the 2016 race, and be a bit nervous about it.  This is why I feel like arguments about "electability" at this point aren't totally off-base.  Biden, on the other hand, is demolishing Trump, and his lead has held steady (or even nudged up) despite his propensity for saying dumb things. If history is any indication, Biden would destroy Trump in the general.

As anyone who has dissected the 2016 race will note, though, it's not a national race, it's a series of state races. The same basic story plays out in the states. Here's a small spreadsheet I've prepared, looking at the big states ($\ge$ 10 EV): MI,WI,PA,FL,MN,AZ & NC (that Trump won 6 of 7 of the coin-flip races is yet another reminder that there was an element of how he got lucky).

The Clinton-Trump matchup was polled in 5 of those states in 2015 (the first 5), with an average Clinton lead of 3.7 points.  By the week before the election, the average of those 5 states was... 3.7 points, exactly the same.  "But, but, the polls were wrong!"  Yes.  They were.  The average error in those 7 states was 3.9 points compared to the last two weeks, with the biggest polling error (7.2 points) in Wisconsin.

But without getting too much into statistical analysis, the short version is that a consistent 4 or 5 point lead at the state level is probably going to win, even if the polling is off by a bit.  So I'm confident in Biden and Sanders, and less confident in Warren.  The remaining Dems either do worse, or else there's little enough recent, high-quality polling, that I'm not super confident about them winning.

Point is, someone who is whooping Trump now is very likely to whoop him in November of next year.

3. The Frontrunners All Have Good Maps

We still don't know who the Democratic nominee will be, but I'd put decent money that it's likely to be one of the current leaders.  We can use the typical scatters above (and the polling at the state level) to figure out what the maps look like, which is what my 2020 tracker is all about.  And the short version is that they're all beating Trump, but not with the same certainty:

Biden wins 97% (!) of simulations, with a median of 382 electoral votes.  He seems poised to win the big 3 (PA, MI, WI), along with Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Arizona.  There's very little polling, but he seems to be possible positioned to win Texas, Iowa, and Georgia as well.

Warren has a slightly tougher map.  She wins about 70% of simulations, with a median of 301 electoral votes.  Besides the big 3, she has a solid change in Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona, although most have not been polled recently, so we're basing on national trends.

Sanders has a pretty good map, with an 86% win probability, and a median of 346 electoral votes.  He has a good shot in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Feel free to play around with the simulation parameters on your own, but the short version is that head-to-head polling at this point really does contain a lot of information, and we'd be ill-advised to ignore them.  To those who scoff at "electability," I'd suggest focusing on putting your candidate in a better position head-to-head against Trump to make your case. That's almost certainly to be reflected in an improvement in relative position in the Dem primary.