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A new report releases data on shifting swing states

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The Democratic Party has spent two weeks now agonizing over President Biden's distressing debate performance. Biden says he will not drop out. But more Democratic politicians and more big campaign donors are asking him to step aside. And yesterday actor George Clooney, who has helped raise millions for the Biden campaign, wrote in The New York Times that he loves Joe Biden, but fears he cannot win. How are voters taking all this in? The Cook Political Report asked them, and its editor-in-chief, Amy Walter, is here to tell us about that feedback. Hi, Amy.

AMY WALTER: Hi.

PFEIFFER: Would you give us the overview on how national polling numbers have changed since the debate?

WALTER: Yeah. We don't have a whole bunch of data. We have a little bit of it. But really, the way we looked at where things stand in the race right now is where were things already before the debate? And where things were where you had President Biden trailing in some of these key swing states - Nevada, Georgia, Arizona. And the whole premise really of the Biden campaign has been that once the campaign got engaged, once we saw the two candidates side by side, like the debate would be, that Biden would be able to make the case that he was not just the stronger candidate, but that Trump was the weaker candidate. And obviously, that did not happen in the debate.

And as such, we have to look at those states where Biden was already struggling, and we made the decision to say, well, those states right now, those three states I just mentioned - we have to give the advantage today to Donald Trump. What this means is the Electoral College battleground in terms of the pathways for each candidate to win the nomination - it's gotten a lot narrower for Biden and a lot wider for Trump.

PFEIFFER: And to ask the usual caveat about polls - we have learned they can be wrong.

WALTER: (Laughter) Yes.

PFEIFFER: How confident are you in this polling?

WALTER: Right. So, again, it's less about, you know, one poll or one moment in time. It's really about the direction that this election has taken. Once again, I think the key fundamental - and this is really where I go back to rather than focusing on one poll or even on a couple of polls - is to say, all right, where has this campaign been, and where do we think it's going for the next few months? And where the campaign has been, it's been focused almost exclusively on President Biden and his weaknesses.

And again, the president's campaign has said, well, that's fine because once we get into the campaign, we're going to pivot to make the race as much about Trump's weaknesses. And that hasn't happened. So unless and until that happens, this is an election about Biden. And right now, where - what that means is in some of those swing states, he is really going to have trouble being able to win at this point.

PFEIFFER: For people who really care about points, do you have any sign of how many points Trump may be ahead?

WALTER: Yeah. So we've also looked at polling that has been taking place, national polling since May. And over the - between May and now, what we've seen is very small movements. And let's also be really, really clear - this electoral moment that we're in, we are talking about a very close election that will be decided by just a couple of points here and there. That's what the last two elections have been about. So when we look at what has changed since the debate, Trump has moved basically two points, or the race has moved two points in his favor, which doesn't seem like a lot, right? Two points isn't such a big deal. And you're right, it's within this so-called margin of error. But if you think about it as the fact that the last two presidential elections, the states that were the closest were all decided by two points or less, two points becomes critically important.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned Nevada, Georgia, Arizona. What about other...

WALTER: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...Toss-up states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin?

WALTER: Right. Those ones right now we're seeing - and this is why the data is pretty noisy right now. Pennsylvania is one where Trump seems to have moved most - unclear what that's about, so I want to see more polling data to get a sense there. But it's been pretty clear now for some time that part of the reason that Trump is doing better in those Sunbelt states is that he's doing better with Latino voters, with Black voters. And that's the question going forward, is whether he'll still be able to hang onto those all the way till November.

PFEIFFER: Thanks for the polling. It's interesting to hear this. That is Amy Walter, publisher and editor of the Cook Political Report. Thank you.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.