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Election 2020: 3 Eventful Weeks Ahead

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's a question posed every presidential election year - are you better off now than you were four years ago? In a few minutes, we'll discuss the foreign policy aspect of that question - is the United States safer now than before President Trump took office? But we're going to begin by looking ahead to what promises to be a very eventful final three weeks of the 2020 presidential race.

President Trump resumed public appearances yesterday even though questions remain about his COVID-19 diagnosis. Both the president and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are now planning to campaign in person during the final stretch. A debate between the two slated for this week has been scrapped, but Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett are scheduled to begin tomorrow. So we thought this would be a good time to bring on NPR's senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro, for an update.

Domenico, welcome. Thanks for being here.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start with the big picture. You've been poring over data from all over the country about where Donald Trump and Joe Biden stand in each state. So what did you learn? How does the electoral map look like now?

MONTANARO: Well, if you look at the polls and talk to people involved with the campaigns this year up and down the ballot, Joe Biden is well ahead. He has a double-digit lead in the national average. And when you drill down into the states in the electoral map - which, of course, decides the presidency - Biden has widened his lead over the last month. And with states leaning in his direction or likely to go his way in our map, he has 290 electoral votes - well above the 270 needed to win.

And a lot of this is because he's been performing strong in the Midwest and doing better than most Democrats have in the last 40 years with white voters. Because of that, right now, he's doing surprisingly well in red states, putting him on track to not only do better than Hillary Clinton in the popular vote, but it also has a lot of Republicans who are involved in campaigns worried that there could be another blue wave coming.

MARTIN: Well, that doesn't mean the president can't stage a comeback, of course. I mean, everybody remembers that. So what's the way forward for the president at this point? Where is he likely to focus his energies?

MONTANARO: Yeah, definitely. Despite all of the sort of negative narrative around Trump, he's still in striking distance in the key swing states. And his team warns that they think that the polls have been wrong before and are wrong again, over-sampling Democrats, for example. Pollsters I've talked to say that this has been a much different year than 2016, a more consistent race, that they've made adjustments for things like weighing for education. But we won't know who's right until all the votes are counted, of course.

And for Trump to win, though, his best hope is that there are more people out there open to his message who didn't vote in 2016. He has some room to grow, for example, with white voters without a college degree. They voted in record margins for Trump in 2016, but only 58% of them turned out overall. That's lower than some recent past elections.

It is hard to see, though, you know, what the catalyst would be for them to turn out in bigger numbers. This time in 2016, Trump was fresh and new, and he hadn't been president yet.

MARTIN: And what about Joe Biden? What's his plan for the next three weeks, and how is he planning to avoid what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016?

MONTANARO: I mean, Clinton's biggest problem turned out to be taking the Upper Midwest for granted. Democrats had won a bunch of those states for several presidential election cycles. Biden's team, on the other hand, has focused like a laser beam on six big states where they've poured in their advertising dollars. We're talking about Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and then, in the Sun Belt, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona.

By the way, Arizona - it's a state that is really brand-new this year to the competitive states. 2016, it was an emerging competitive state. Clinton lost it by three and a half points. But this year, Biden has been ahead there by about four points in an average of the polls since March. So, you know, that's toward the beginning of the pandemic, and Trump hasn't really recovered.

Frankly, Democrats aren't believing the polls. I don't blame them. They feel, given Trump's talk about a peaceful transition of power and casting doubt on mail-in ballots - they really feel this can't be a close election and that they are working...

MARTIN: OK.

MONTANARO: ...To make sure that Biden wins by a lot.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Domenico, thanks as always.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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