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Trump trails Biden in swing state and national polls. But here's how he can still win.

Though the landscape appears to favor Biden, several places still offer the Trump campaign hope, including one in particular: Pennsylvania.
Image: President Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Muskegon, Michigan
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on Saturday in Muskegon, Mich.Rey Del Rio / Getty Images

Joe Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, recently warned supporters that despite their side’s strong poll numbers in national surveys, defeating President Donald Trump shouldn’t be taken for granted. “There is still a long way to go in this campaign,” O’Malley Dillon said on Twitter on Oct. 14. And “we think this race is far closer than folks on this website (Twitter) think. Like a lot closer.”

Polls may not be counting broad swaths of people who were eligible to vote but didn’t in 2016 but still could this time; GOP voter registration is up in several key states.

Whether O’Malley Dillon was using scare tactics to tamp down supporters’ overconfidence or she actually believes Biden is in imminent danger of losing, her message made sense — Trump can still win, however narrow the path.

To be sure, Trump faces a considerably more uphill battle against Biden, President Barack Obama’s two-term vice president and 36-year senator from Delaware, than he did in 2016 facing Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady, whose disapproval ratings were among the highest of any modern presidential nominee.

Biden’s favorability rating is 44.5 percent, and his unfavorability rating 46.1 percent, per the RealClearPolitics average. Trump’s approval rating, meanwhile, is 44.8 percent, with a 53.8 percent disapproval rating, average shows. Biden is widely seen as a conciliatory veteran lawmaker and an empathetic figure who would restore normality to the White House after the tumult of the Trump years.

The former VP leads in the national vote by nearly 10 points, according to the latest polls, and also in nearly all the swing states most likely to decide the election, which include several states Trump won in 2016, among them Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Though this landscape appears to favor Biden, several factors still offer Trump’s campaign hope. The Electoral College map can be divvied up among the candidates enough different ways to leave the president some late-in-the-game paths to victory. Additionally, polls may not be counting broad swaths of people who were eligible to vote but didn’t in 2016 but still could this time; GOP voter registration is up in several key states, including Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, so some of these voters can now head to the polls.

A myriad of court cases challenging who is eligible to vote could also work to Trump’s electoral benefit. Not to mention ongoing efforts at interference in the elections from Russian and other outside parties that could affect the race in unpredictable ways. Plus the ultimately unpredictable “October Surprise,” a last-minute election-shaping event, such as one related to the financial dealings of Joe Biden’s son Hunter or an as-yet-unidentified source of disruption.

Going into 2020 the partisan breakdown among the states — whose delegates determine how many of the Electoral College’s 538 votes each candidate gets — finds 21 red states (totally 163 electoral votes) and 17 are blue states, plus the heavily-Democratic District of Columbia (for 212 electoral votes), virtually unshakable in their voting patterns. This leaves 12 swing states, with their combined 161 electoral votes, as the deciders: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Additionally, Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes by congressional districts and are both in play. Polling shows that Biden has a decent shot at winning Nebraska’s Second District, based in Omaha, while Trump is ahead in Maine’s Second District, in the state’s northern tier.

All of which means that Trump can win the Electoral College if he takes Pennsylvania and holds much — though not absolutely all — of the states he won in 2016. Trump’s upset victory over Clinton effectively netted him 306 electoral votes, well above the 270 needed to win a majority. Of the three states that put him over the top, Pennsylvania was the biggest win, and he won by 44,292 votes out of more than 6 million cast.

Now, two weeks before Nov. 3, Trump trails in Michigan by 7.2 percentage points, and in Wisconsin by 6 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics average. But Trump could afford to lose Michigan’s 16 electoral votes and Wisconsin’s 10 and still cobble together a 280-electoral vote win by holding onto all of the other places he won in 2016.

Pennsylvania is notable because unlike in Trump’s other two Electoral College majority-maker states, Michigan and Wisconsin, Hillary Clinton played hard there, frequently campaigning in person and spending gobs of money, but still lost.

Of course, Trump holding onto all the other states that went red in 2016 is no easy play, considering that the Biden campaign sees openings in many of those states and is campaigning hard there today: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio and even Texas, long a deep-red bastion and the nation’s second-most populous state. Still, while the Biden campaign is devoting considerable resources to these states, there’s no assurance any will actually flip his way. Even Arizona, widely considered the best of the bunch for the left, has voted for a Democratic nominee only once since 1952, and polls favoring Biden remain relatively tight as Nov. 3 draws near.

“While we see robust leads at the national level, in the states we’re counting on to carry us to victory like Arizona and North Carolina we’re only up by three points,” O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, wrote this weekend in a memo to supporters. “We also know that even the best polling can be wrong, and that variables like turnout mean that in a number of critical states we are functionally tied — and that we need to campaign like we’re trailing.”

Pennsylvania is also too close for comfort for the Biden campaign, as he leads there by only 4.4 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Most alarmingly for the Biden campaign, Trump still has room to grow his support in the state. According to a Knight Foundation study of nonvoters in the 2016 election, about 36 percent of those who didn’t cast a ballot in Pennsylvania said they would be more likely to vote for Trump versus 28 percent for a generic Democratic presidential nominee.

And GOP voter registration drives might make these hoped for votes a reality, with new data showing the state had around 3.5 million Republicans and 4.2 million Democrats, whittling down the gap between them by 1.4 percentage points from the previous year.

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Then there are the voting shenanigans Trump and his supporters are pushing across the country, at times openly, including polling place closures, vote-by-mail restrictions, erroneous voter roll purges and overly burdensome voter ID requirements. Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed on both sides, with Democrats generally trying to expand the franchise and Republicans wanting to restrict it in the name of “ballot integrity.”

Both sides have had their share of wins and losses on balloting issue lawsuits so far. Still, Republican victories could cause trouble for Biden in a couple of states in which he is currently favored.

Both sides have had their share of wins and losses on balloting issue lawsuits so far. Still, Republican victories could cause trouble for Biden in a couple of states in which he is currently favored. In Michigan, for instance, a state appeals court rescinded a 14-day extension for the receipt of mail ballots, meaning only those received by 8 p.m. on Election Day would be counted. Similarly in Wisconsin, a divided federal appeals court ruled mail-in ballots must be received by Election Day, nixing a six-day extension provided by a lower court. Both cases have the potential to limit the number of mail-in ballots cast, a method that in 2020 is proving a benefit to Democrats.

And then there are the “known unknowns,” like foreign interference in the election. There are stark reminders practically every day that Moscow is once again trying to help Trump.

So, two weeks out from Nov. 3, there’s good reason for Biden campaign officials to be cautious. “We are not ahead by double digits,” O’Malley Dillon told grassroots organizers recently. “Those are inflated national public polling numbers.”

That’s sound advice for Democrats heading into election night, considering how 2016 turned out.