Your personal election anxiety management calendar is here!

To start: No one needs to panic today.

Right now, neither side needs to freak out. Yes, Biden is leading by about a seven-point margin nationally, and major forecasts agree that he’s the favorite. But the race is close enough for either candidate to win.

In elections from 1952 to 2016, it has been completely normal for mid-September polls to miss the final margin by roughly five points. That sort of improvement would take Trump from a seven-point popular-vote deficit to a two-point loss — territory where the president could easily win the electoral college again. Similarly, if Biden gained five points, Democrats would win in a historic landslide.

Recent elections — where the electorate was more polarized and polls were less volatile — paint a somewhat grimmer picture for Trump. Between 2000 and 2016, the poll average in mid-September was often roughly three points off the outcome. But even if Trump only improved his margin by this much, he’d still have a chance to win the electoral college.

In short, Biden is doing better, but neither candidate is clearly missing his benchmark.

Late September and early October: If Biden is still holding on to his lead by now, Trump supporters should start to get nervous.

On Sept. 29, Biden and Trump will participate in the first presidential debate. If Trump hasn’t made inroads by then, that’s an unequivocally bad sign for Republicans.

A sustained seven-point margin for Biden would signal that Team Trump is out of arguments, having tried just about everything to slow down the former vice president. Before this point in the month of September, the Trump campaign will have had every opportunity to shift the narrative: Voters already knew about covid-19 and protests, and there were no scheduled events such as debates or conventions to suck up airtime. This month, Trump has free rein to make whatever argument he wants without interruption — and if he fails to move voters, that’s a sign of deep weakness. And, on a simple mathematical level, Trump might find it difficult to make up four to five points in just a month.

Late October: Is Trump within four points of Biden?

October is going to be a mess. There are debates every week from Sept. 29 to Oct. 22; campaigns will be unloading all their opposition research; and everyone in media will be jumping on any minor development, trying to figure out whether this is the moment a basically stable race gets crazy.

That might sound fun to polling junkies. But if it’s stressing you out, skip the polls and the horse-race commentary until Oct. 26. That’s the Monday after the final debate, and it’s roughly a week before Election Day. At that point, we should have some inkling of whether debate season changed the picture.

By that time, Biden wants to make sure he has a lead of four points or more. Trump has a roughly even shot at winning the electoral college if he loses the popular vote by two to three points. A four- or five-point Biden lead would give the Democratic challenger some padding: Trump would have to find a way to shift the race at the last minute or open an eye-popping gap between the electoral college and the popular vote, or else benefit from a polling error to win.

Going into Election Day: Biden wants a lead of more than three points on Nov. 3. Preferably by a lot more, though.

There’s no magic polling number that would guarantee victory for Biden or Trump on Election Day. In theory, Trump could win the electoral college while still losing the popular vote by five points, and Biden could sand off his advantage and win the presidency while winning the popular vote by only one or two points.

But if Biden is ahead by more than three points, he’ll be the odds-on favorite. Trump would still be very much in the game at that point: Pollsters could have underestimated Trump, as they did in 2016. But polls are equally likely to misfire in Biden’s direction. And if Biden builds a bigger lead — maybe in the high single digits — he’ll approach the point where Trump could outperform the polls by a large margin and still win.

We’re not there yet. I can’t tell you what the final result of this election will be. But if you need to ration your polling consumption, along with your coffee and your Twitter doom-scrolling, focus on the times when tuning in will actually tell you something.

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