Election season in America has started  - although you’d be forgiven for thinking that election season in the States is ever over. According to the polls, former President Donald Trump holds a narrow lead over current President Joe Biden. But just how much does the early-year polling really tell us about the likely outcome in November?

To answer that question, it’s important to acknowledge a few factors - the first of which is that the presidential race takes a long, long time - and technically, neither man has officially been confirmed as their party’s candidate. Yet, barring an exceptional event, we can say with confidence that November will see a rerun of the last presidential election, albeit with the roles reversed. It’ll be Biden vs. Trump, round two. Given that only a handful of states have made decisions on who the nominees will be, how can we be so sure?

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For the Democrats, it’s easy. Rarely have sitting US Presidents not become their party nominees. It takes very unusual, and usually major, world events to change that pattern. Every first-term US president wants a second term, and Joe Biden is no different. Early state results speak for themselves. Mr Biden has no serious internal party opposition. In New Hampshire, where he was not even on the ballot but had to be "written in’" the President still won 64% of votes cast. In South Carolina, it was 96% of the votes. Mr Biden will be the Democratic Party nominee.

On the Republican side, things are looking good for The Donald; technically Nikki Haley is still in the race. She, however, has yet to win any state, and she just lost her home state of South Carolina. Mr Trump’s grip on the Republican Party has become almost absolute. What the former President wants, he gets; from making sure the US House does not vote in an immigration and US border bill, to installing his daughter-in-law as the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, Trump directly influences everything the party does.

There can be little doubt that Mr Trump is winning the Republican race. The early-year caucuses have turned into nothing more than victory celebrations. In Iowa, he won 51%, in New Hampshire 54%, in Nevada he swept the board with 99% and in South Carolina, he had 60%. Yet those early results, Nevada aside, may indicate some problems.

For a man with an iron grip on his party, he should surely be getting higher levels of support in a partisan election. Winning 51%, 54% or even 60% of the vote from members of his own party is perhaps not the ringing endorsement he would hope for. Some Republican voters seem less enamoured with him than his core faithful are, and he is yet to face the wider American public, with whom he has a very mixed record. Of course, Joe Biden may have similar issues.

The Herald: Mitt Romney has stated that he will not vote for Donald TrumpMitt Romney has stated that he will not vote for Donald Trump (Image: Getty)

That brings us to the early-year polls. Mr Trump, if we take an average from 561 polls, has a lead of 2.2% - which is within the margin of error. If we look back to the 2016 election every early poll bar one had Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump – and we all know what happened in November. National polls may well predict a Trump victory; much as they predicted Mrs Clinton winning, but this is not a national race. We should look at the vote as 51 mini-elections, with each deciding separately who wins in their state. Focus on polls in the swing states, not America-wide polls. Again though, the message there seems better for Mr Trump than Mr Biden. Michigan and Wisconsin, battlegrounds in 2016 and 2020 have polls which put Mr Trump ahead.

Another reason why Mr Trump is seen as the favourite is because Mr Biden has low approval ratings. However, in polls released earlier this month looking at favourability, 55% of voters felt unfavourably about Mr Biden, while 54.7% felt unfavourably about Mr Trump. These results are virtually identical: the difference so small, that it’s unlikely to play a factor in the outcome.

It’s also worth considering, when looking at potential outcomes, that Mr Trump has never won the popular vote, even when he won the presidency. In 2016, more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton - a fact that clearly galls the 45th President, as he’s claimed the exact opposite on many occasions. Ultimately, as any good political scientist will tell you, the trick to winning the presidential race isn’t to make sure the electorate votes for you, it’s to make sure they don’t vote for the other candidate.

There are clearly Republican voters who do not want to vote for Donald Trump, including Senators. Mitt Romney, a former Republican Presidential nominee, is among those who have stated that they will not vote Trump. Mr Trump carries baggage that is almost unrivalled in election race,  including sexual assault, civil fraud and four outstanding criminal prosecutions; meaning that during the campaign trail, he will be in court regularly.

Of course, Mr Biden faces challenges of his own. The Israel-Palestine conflict is eating into areas of Democratic support. Much has been made of his age. At 81 (four years older than Trump), it’s even been claimed that he is in cognitive decline. There are social media campaigns to replace Mr Biden; some political betting sites have Michelle Obama at 15-1 for the nomination, though she has categorically ruled out running.

Elections are supposed to be about issues - they were before Donald Trump, anyway - and we hear much debate about immigration, inflation, abortion, guns, and crime. These are all classic issues of American politics, but they are so often drowned out by the extraordinary race that is just officially starting. Time will tell whether or not these issues will matter, compared to the baggage carried by each candidate. We may know who the candidates are, but the decision is far from clear. By all means look at the polls, but look at them in context.

Professor Murray Leith is with the School of Education and Social Sciences at the University of the West of Scotland