Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden is doing better in the polls than Hillary Clinton at the same stage of the 2016 race, putting President Trump on the defense with just six weeks until Election Day.
Mr. Biden outperforms Mrs. Clinton across the Rust Belt from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, states that sealed Mr. Trump’s upset victory with narrow 1% margins four years ago and which now occupy ground zero in the 2020 showdown.
Mr. Biden, the former vice president under Barack Obama, may benefit from slightly better marks because he’s incrementally more likable than Mrs. Clinton.
“He isn’t as polarizing or disliked as Hillary Clinton. She just had a special way about her that energized people,” said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant in Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately for our side, she retired.”
Still, Mr. Trump is within striking distance in the polls in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all places where Mr. Biden outperforms Mrs. Clinton in a comparison of mid-September polling from 2016 and 2020.
At this time four years ago, Mrs. Clinton led Mr. Trump by about 5 points in Michigan. Mr. Biden now has a 6-point advantage, according to the Real Clear Politics average of recent polling in the state.
Mr. Trump ended up winning Michigan in 2016 by 0.23% or roughly 10,700 votes.
“I’m not sure I would make too much of that difference, but what it suggests at least in part is that Michigan was close in 2016 and there is every reason to think Michigan will be close in 2020,” said John A. Clark, chairman of the political science department at Western Michigan University.
What will determine the winner in Michigan, according to Mr. Clark, is whether Republican voters show up at the polls or utilize the state’s decision to allow anyone who wants to vote by mail to do so. He said the president’s rhetoric on mail-in ballot fraud could backfire.
Michigan has traditionally been strict about allowing people to cast absentee ballots, but, due to the coronavirus pandemic, anyone who wants to vote by mail this year will be able to do so.
During the August primaries, turnout was higher in large part because people were able to vote by mail.
In Pennsylvania, Mr. Biden enjoys an extra three-point edge in mid-September polling over where Mrs. Clinton stood at the same time in 2016. Polls had her with a one-point lead. Mr. Biden currently has a 4-point lead over the president.
Mr. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by 0.71% or 44,292 votes.
“Right now, Trump is running against himself and the virus,” Mr. Nicholas said.
In Wisconsin, too, Mr. Biden has a 6-point edge against Mr. Trump, whereas Mrs. Clinton only enjoyed a 3-point lead in mid-September polling four years ago.
It’s a state Mr. Trump only won by 0.77% or 22,748 votes.
Katerine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the support for the president might be “relaxing” in her state due to the unsteady economy, racial unrest and the pandemic.
Mr. Biden also could be a more favorable candidate than Mrs. Clinton to some voters who like his centrism or were opposed to a female president.
“I think it is fair to say that Trump has a very difficult contest here,” Ms. Cramer said.