In the first of three articles before the most important US election in a generation, Foreign Editor David Pratt examines whether Democrat Joe Biden’s poll lead is enough to weather any ‘October surprise.’ 

In a little over two weeks time Americans will decide whether they have had enough of Donald Trump’s presidency. If the headline in an article in the US current affairs magazine Foreign Policy is anything to go by, then this is “The most important election ever.” 

In that same article the writer Michael Hirsh, the publication’s senior correspondent, goes on the examine “why the fate of the American Republic – and the world – could depend on what happens on November 3.” 

It only takes a cursory glance across US newspapers and other media to tell you that this is far from hyperbole. In fact, many agree. 

According to one recent YouGov poll something like seven in ten Americans say that the upcoming presidential election is the most important in their lifetime. The poll also suggests that on this one issue at least Republicans and Democrats agree. 

This however is as far as any alignment goes between these political rivals as America prepares to vote in not just the most important election in a generation but one of the most bitterly contested. 

Given that things inevitably will only get hotter over the next fortnight, right now is as good a time as any to cast some light amidst the heat on the current state of play in the campaign. 

So just where do President Donald Trump and Democrat rival Joe Biden stand in the latest polls, and what are the key battlegrounds on which the outcome of the election will be pretty much determined? 

On the face of it things appear to be going Biden’s way. In the latest polling average he appears to have a significant advantage over Trump pointing to what The Financial Times (FT) referred to last week as a “potential blowout victory” for the former Democratic vice president and now presidential challenger. 

Several national opinion polls show Biden has opened up a double-digit lead since the chaotic September debate in which Trump repeatedly interrupted his rival, then was hospitalised with COVID-19 a few days later. 

For his part, Trump has consistently maintained that polls that put him behind are “fake”, demanding that the generally sympathetic Fox News “get a new pollster” after even this broadcaster’s own data showed him falling well behind. 

Far from being “fake” however the latest polls are all too real. At this late stage of the race Biden is now polling not only far better than Hillary Clinton did in the entire 2016-campaign cycle, but also even better than Barack Obama who never hit 50 per cent in his aggregate polling leading into his re-election in 2008. 

But ask Democrats or election pundits whether they are willing to predict a Biden win and most will counsel caution, remembering all too well being politically poleaxed by Trump’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton back in 2016. 

“He’s not winning by 14 or 16 points. Not a chance. We’re too polarised for that,” warned Larry Sabato Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, speaking to The Guardian newspaper last week. 

“What happened was a lot of Trump supporters became discouraged after the debate and after his hospitalisation and simply wouldn’t participate in the polls.

This has happened before. So I think Biden will win, probably by a healthy margin. But nothing like the current numbers suggest. It’s a sugar high,” added Sabato. 

Democratic Party activists on the ground echo that same cautious approach especially in key battleground states. 

“People are scarred from 2016,” Judy Daubenmier, chair of the Livingston County Democratic Party in Michigan, told Reuters news agency. 

Michigan was another state back in 2016 that Trump won by less than a percentage point. Wary right now of that experience repeating itself, Daubenmier says she has resorted to telling voters not to believe Biden’s encouraging poll numbers. 

“Nobody assumes Biden is going to win. We are working like we are two points behind. Anything can happen,” she added. 

Even Barack Obama is sounding a cautionary note, suggesting that there is no room for complacency among Democrat voters. 

“It’s going to be close,” Obama, warned in a TV campaign ad for Biden, his former deputy last week. “It could come down to a handful of voters just like you,” the 44th president said. 

“So I’m asking you to bring this thing home. Leave no doubt. Vote early.” 

Many Democrat voters appear to be taking Obama and others at their word. Perhaps partly motivated by this sense of uncertainty they appear to be driving the surge in early voting. In states that report party affiliation data, nearly twice as many registered Democrats have requested ballots than Republicans have, the data show. 

For example, more than 960,000 registered Democrats in battleground Florida have already posted back their ballots, compared with 564,000 Republicans. 
Nationally, 14.6 million Americans have already cast ballots by mail or through in-person voting, compared to roughly 1.4 million at the same point four years ago, according to the United States Elections Project, a site run by University of Florida that compiles early voting data. 

But even with this early voting surge the race remains competitive in key states such as Florida, Arizona and North Carolina that are crucial to winning the Electoral College. Here again the 2016 Hillary Clinton experience raises its head. Clinton of course won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes but lost the Electoral College, and thus the presidency. In other words the number of votes you win is less important than where you win them. 

While there is a fairly predictable pattern in most states of them voting the same way, only a handful are places where both candidates stand a chance of winning. 

These are the places where the election will be won and lost and are known as battleground states. Once again it’s good news for Biden on this front with polls in these key states suggesting he has big leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three industrial states Trump won by margins of less than 1 per to clinch victory in 2016. 

Seen from Trump’s perspective however, it’s those battleground states where he won convincingly in 2016 that his campaign team will be most worried about. His winning margin in Iowa, Ohio and Texas was between 8-10 per cent back then but polls suggest he might only hold on to Texas if the election were run right now. 

It could well prove significant too as highlighted in the FT last week that several of these most fiercely contested states have showed sharp increases in coronavirus cases. 

Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina, which Trump won four years ago but where polling shows Biden either even or leading - recorded record jumps in cases, according to local health departments. 

In addition the FT noted, Arizona and Florida, which are also viewed as “swing states” that Biden could win after they went to Trump in 2016, had big jumps in infections last week. 

Given that Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been something of a disaster and one the Biden campaign has capitalised on, the sharp rise in cases barely a fortnight before the election bodes ill for Trump in political terms. 

Turning the screw even further on the Trump campaign in these battleground states was the announcement by Biden’s team that they had raised $383 million in September, combined with the Democratic National Committee and their shared committees, and entered October with $432 million cash in the election kitty. 

“That’s more than I’ve raised in my whole life!” Biden marvelled in a short video posted on Twitter last week. 

In what The New York Times described as back-to-back months of record-breaking hauls,” totalling nearly $750 million since the start of August, Biden has been delivered a significant financial advantage over Trump in the closing weeks of the campaign. Some of this election war chest has been put to good use in effective advertising in some battleground states. 

With the gloves off on social media Trump of course has been fighting back with his campaign spending more on battleground-state advertising buys on the platform Facebook, which was a key part of his strategy in 2016. 

According to the Washington Post, as October began it’s estimated that team Trump spent $794,000 per day per on Facebook ads to convince wavering voters and to turn out his base in several states key to his 2016 victory. 

At the time of writing the bitter struggle for these key states was reaching a new fever pitch with Trump planning events over this weekend in Florida and Georgia, where he is expected to make an appeal to older voters. Vice President Mike Pence meanwhile was heading to North Carolina. 

It was of course many of these older voters who helped put Trump into office in the first place, but if current polls are correct it could well prove these same "seniors" who force his departure from the White House. 

According to figures from the Pew Research Centre a think tank on social issues, American “seniors,” those over 65, will account for almost half the electorate in this election. The turnaround in national and key battleground states in terms of their voting pattern from four years ago could not be starker. 

The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News national poll shows Biden winning this group of voters by more than 20 points, something many observers say can be explained away by unhappiness with the way the president has handled the pandemic, which disproportionately affects older voters. Trump could pay dearly as a result of what’s been dubbed a “Grey Revolt” against his policies. 

“He shouldn’t be saying the things he’s saying” about the coronavirus, Randy Bode, 59, a Republican in Douglas, Arizona, who voted for Trump in 2016, told Reuters echoing the views of many other disgruntled seniors. 

Bode, who is now an undecided voter, is also concerned about Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and how that would leave millions of Americans without health insurance during a health crisis. 

Losing support among seniors as well as American women in “the suburbs,” and faced with a wave of Democratic early voting, Trump faces as daunting a challenge to re-election as any incumbent president in a quarter-century. 

Typically these past days when faced with such legitimate challenges Trump’s language has grown more heated. More worryingly once again he has begun to raise the spectre of what he calls a “stolen election.” 

Last Thursday The New York Times (NYT) highlighted the fears of some Democrat activists who fear the president might not accept a peaceful transfer of power. It highlighted too how some might respond violently to a Trump defeat. 

One Trump supporter, who owns a gun shop in stanchly Republican Mercer County Pennsylvania, told the NYT how, “Sales have been crazy.” 

“People are afraid,” the owner said. “They’re afraid of what’s going to happen” after the election if Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, wins. 

The report also cited the similar concerns from Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the US Police Executive Research Forum. 

American elections are usually non-events for law enforcement, said Wexler adding that transitions from one US president to the next were typically a peaceful pageant of democracy. “But not this year... this year is unlike any year,” Wexler warned. 

The past few days have seen Trump back in full attack mode. In the battleground state of Florida he rolled out his familiar campaign classics for his followers. 

“Fake news” and the “corrupt press” were denounced as was “Crooked Hillary,” while he again rang the warning bells about the rising “socialist nightmare and “radical left.” 

He also spared nothing of course in mocking his Democrat rival whom he has nicknamed “Sleepy Joe.” 

For the moment Biden’s campaign looks anything but sleepy or lethargic, though many observers agree it still needs to go up a gear if he is to ensure he becomes the next resident of the White House. 

Speaking to the FT last week Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, summed up perfectly the current state of election play

“If I was advising Biden, I certainly would not be measuring for drapes yet,” said Elleithee. This year is so volatile. Who knows?” she continued, before adding that she expected several more ‘October surprises’ yet.