Biden’s best path to reelection runs through the Great Lakes and not the Sun Belt

Just how does Joe Biden win reelection? National polls show him trailing Donald Trump more often than leading him – a rare position for an incumbent to be in at this point in the campaign.

These national polls, though, mean little. You win elections state by state through the Electoral College. Back in 2020, the closest battleground states (i.e., those decided by 3 points or less) were either around the Great Lakes (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) or along the Sun Belt (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina).

Biden would be reelected if he wins all the states in either region, so long as he also carries the remaining states he took in 2020.

At this point, though, it seems his easiest path to a second term runs through the Great Lakes rather than the Sun Belt.

Look at two Fox News polls released Thursday. Biden and Trump were tied in Wisconsin – a state the president won by less than a point in 2020. In Georgia, another state Biden won by less than a point four years ago, Trump held an 8-point edge.

These Fox News polls are not outliers. Trump hasn’t led (even within the margin of error) in any Wisconsin poll this cycle that meets CNN’s standards for publication. On the other end, he hasn’t trailed in any Georgia poll in well over a year.

These two states fit within a larger pattern we’ve seen in the polling data. Trump has generally had a clear advantage in Arizona, while Biden and Trump have traded leads in Pennsylvania. Recent Pennsylvania polls from Franklin & Marshall College and Quinnipiac University gave Biden a slightly higher vote share than Trump, but his advantage was within the margin of error.

Likewise, the polling in Nevada has generally been strong for Trump. The limited North Carolina polling hasn’t been great for Biden either.

Biden’s weakest state in the Great Lakes battleground surveys has been Michigan, though he has polled better there than any Sun Belt swing state. He’s also done better in Michigan polls of likely voters than of registered voters. This includes the New York Times/Siena College survey last fall that found him down 5 points to Trump among registered voters, though tied among likely voters.

(That large gap between registered voters and likely voters fits with what we’ve seen nationally and may be greater in Michigan because the state has universal voter registration. In other words, Biden is doing worse among those less likely to vote.)

Biden and United Auto Workers chief Shawn Fain, left, meet with autoworkers in Warren, Michigan, on February 1, 2024. - Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Biden and United Auto Workers chief Shawn Fain, left, meet with autoworkers in Warren, Michigan, on February 1, 2024. - Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

National trends

The fact that Biden is doing better in the Great Lakes than the Sun Belt makes a lot of sense when you look at national polls. Folks like me have been pointing out for a long time that Biden is seeing historically weak support for a Democrat among Hispanic and Black voters nationally.

Hispanic voters make up a disproportionate share of the electorate in Arizona and Nevada compared with on the national level. Black voters make up a disproportionate share of the electorate in Georgia and North Carolina compared with nationwide.

The racial group Biden has tended to hold his own with is White voters. Recent polls from CNN/SSRS, The New York Times and Quinnipiac have Biden doing about as well with this demographic as he did in 2020.

White voters made up at least 80% of 2020 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to both the network exit polls and data from the US Census Bureau. They were somewhere between 67% and 71% nationally in the two data sets.

Michigan is the Great Lakes swing state where White voters make up the lowest share of the electorate. Again, this fits with the state being the Great Lakes battleground where Biden is doing the worst in 2024.

Expect Biden to make a lot more visits to the Wolverine State, like he did earlier this week.

Now, none of this is to say that Biden should solely be relying on winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Beyond the fact that his Michigan polling hasn’t been good – he’s trailed in a number of polls – Biden would be winning the bare minimum in the Electoral College if he carried those three states plus every state he won by at least 5 points in 2020.

Getting exactly 270 electoral votes doesn’t leave Biden with any room for error, especially if he ends up doing worse among White voters than current polling indicates. (This is what happened in 2020.)

On the other hand, if Biden starts to improve with Hispanic and/or Black voters, his polling in the Sun Belt could improve. With so much time between now and November, Biden’s got to be giving himself multiple options.

Still, if someone was taking bets at this point, Biden’s easiest path to 270 electoral votes seems to be through the North, not the South.

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