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Indians, Braves and Cubs all clinch, plus current bracket

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The 2020 MLB playoffs are just over a week away, even though it seems like only yesterday that the regular season kicked off. The compressed 60-game schedule is rapidly coming to a close, and the MLB standings are tight heading to the finish, with wild-card positioning, postseason seeding and the rest of the playoff picture at stake.

As has been the case with so much this season, the playoffs will have a new look, with an expanded format that includes 16 teams for the first time in MLB history.

This will be the place to visit every day through the end of the regular season for updated looks at the potential playoff field, recaps of the biggest games, analysis of the most important storylines and previews of the critical games ahead.

Jump to …

Current playoff field | The big story | Playoff debates | Key games ahead

Key links: Standings | Guide to the final week | Passan: Inside final week | Playoff schedule

If the season ended today …

The matchups: Here’s what the first round of the expanded playoffs would look like, based on the standings entering play Tuesday, Sept. 21.

Best-of-three series, higher seed is home team

AMERICAN LEAGUE
No. 1 Rays* vs. No. 8 Blue Jays
No. 2 White Sox* vs. No. 7 Indians*
No. 3 Athletics* vs. No. 6 Astros
No. 4 Twins* vs. No. 5 Yankees*

NATIONAL LEAGUE
No. 1 Dodgers* vs. No. 8 Brewers
No. 2 Braves* vs. No. 7 Reds
No. 3 Cubs* vs. No. 6 Marlins
No. 4 Padres* vs. No. 5 Cardinals

*Clinched playoff spot

Magic numbers to clinch playoff spot

NL: Marlins 6

AL: Blue Jays 3, Astros 4


Who is in?

Los Angeles Dodgers

The overwhelming preseason favorite was the first team to secure a spot in the postseason tournament, clinching a berth with Wednesday’s win over the Padres. L.A. took two of three from San Diego, which sits in second place in the NL West.

What’s next? The Dodgers, who hold the best record in baseball, are looking for their eighth consecutive NL West championship and the top seed in the league. Of course, the big prize for the Dodgers would be their first World Series title since 1988. This will be L.A.’s 14th playoff appearance since the Dodgers last won it all.

Dodgers must-read: How A.J. and Kate Pollock faced their daughter’s premature birth during the COVID-19 pandemic

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox clinched their first playoff berth since 2008 on Thursday. It will be the 10th postseason appearance in the history of the franchise, which dates to 1903.

What’s next? Chicago is looking for the AL Central title and perhaps even the No. 1 overall seed in the AL field. After taking three of four from the Twins, the White Sox hold a three-game lead in the Central.

White Sox must-read: Rookie Luis Robert could be baseball’s next superstar

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays clinched the sixth postseason appearance in franchise history and their second in a row. Last year, Tampa Bay beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game and lost to Houston in the division series.

What’s next? The Rays’ next goal would be to win the AL East title. It would be their first division crown since 2010.

Oakland Athletics

The A’s punched their third straight postseason ticket with a win over the Giants on Friday night in Oakland.

What’s next? After securing their first AL West crown since 2013 on Monday, the A’s are still in the mix for one of the AL’s top two seeds.

A’s must-read: Inside the A’s dominance and how they plan to make it last

Minnesota Twins

The Twins clinched their third postseason appearance in the past four seasons with their 8-1 win over the Cubs on Saturday. Last year, they were swept by the Yankees in the division series, extending their postseason losing streak to 16 straight since their last win back in Game 1 of the 2004 AL Division Series.

What’s next? Catching the White Sox in the AL Central is probably out of reach, so the next goal would be snapping that postseason losing streak.

San Diego Padres

The Padres clinched their first postseason appearance since 2006 when they came back to beat the Mariners in extra innings 7-4 after fending off a no-hit bid.

What’s next? Catching the Dodgers in the NL West in the last week of the season is unlikely, so maintaining their position as the top-seeded nondivision winner is their more likely near-term goal as they get ready to make good on their 2020 breakthrough.

Padres must-read: How Padres GM A.J. Preller decided to go for it

New York Yankees

Although they took a beating in Boston on Sunday, the Yankees clinched a playoff spot when the Padres beat the Mariners.

What’s next? With the Rays 4½ games ahead in the AL East, the Yankees’ most immediate goals are probably tied to lining up their rotation for October and getting their injury-wracked lineup prepped for the postseason.

Yankees must-read: Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has a HR problem

Atlanta Braves

Even before they finished their game against the Marlins, the Braves clinched their third straight NL East title when the Phillies were swept in both ends of their doubleheader against the Nationals. In both of the previous two seasons, the Braves failed to advance beyond the Division Series.

What’s next? Lining up their shallow rotation for next week’s playoff assignments and keeping everyone healthy seem like the immediate goals that make the most sense.

Braves must-read: Why a Braves-White Sox World Series would be extra special

Cleveland Indians

Powered by Jose Ramirez’s three-run home run in the bottom of the 10th inning in Cleveland’s win over the White Sox, the Indians made their return to the postseason after missing out on October in 2019, which snapped a streak of three straight playoff appearances.

What’s next? Two more games against the White Sox and a final weekend series against the lowly Pirates keeps a come-from-behind AL Central title in reach for the Indians.

Chicago Cubs

Like the Indians did as well on Tuesday, the Cubs snapped a single-season hiatus from the postseason, in their case because of the Phillies’ double dose of defeat in their twin bill against the Nationals.

What’s next? Getting Jose Quintana and Kris Bryant healthy and ready for the postseason are the Cubs’ two biggest priorities in the time remaining.

Cubs must-read: Inside Yu Darvish’s return to elite status as the Cubs’ ace

Who could clinch next?

• The Rays can clinch the AL East with a win over the Mets or a Yankees loss to the Blue Jays

About last night …

play

1:02

With the Indians down to their final strike, Jose Ramirez cranks a three-run homer to give the Indians a walk-off win and a playoff berth.

The Cubs and Indians, who met in the 2016 World Series, both had frustrating 2019 seasons. The Cubs, after four straight playoff seasons of at least 92 wins, fell to 84-78 and missed the postseason. The front office moved on from Joe Maddon as manager and hired former backup catcher and Game 7 World Series hero David Ross. The Indians won 93 games, two more than in 2018 when they won the division, but that wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in a top-heavy American League.

Now both teams are back in the postseason, the Cubs clinching despite a 3-2 loss to the Pirates and the Indians clinching with a dramatic 5-3, 10-inning win over the White Sox. Ross has earned rave reviews not just for guiding the Cubs through all of the obstacles of this season, but because the once powerful lineup has struggled even as the Cubs inch closer to the division title. Javier Baez is hitting .202/.237/.355 — and hit cleanup on Tuesday. Kris Bryant, now injured, has hit .195. Kyle Schwarber is hitting .193 and Anthony Rizzo .220.

In that championship season, the Cubs ranked second in the NL in runs per game, behind only the Rockies. With that young core, they figured to remain an offensive powerhouse for years to come. Indeed, they were still second in runs in 2017 (just barely behind the Rockies again), but they fell to sixth in 2018 and 2019 and are just 11th this season.

Ross hasn’t been afraid to get tough with his former teammates either, including benching Schwarber the other day after a poor defensive play. He has handled the bullpen well, even after projected closer Craig Kimbrel imploded early on. Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks have been the team MVPs, going a combined 13-7 with a 2.59 ERA. Theo Epstein would have envisioned a first-place Cubs team in 2020 four years ago — but not as a pitching-first team with a lineup hitting .223 despite all those big names

Cleveland got here exactly how everyone predicted — starting pitching. But Tuesday’s win shows this team is deeper than just Shane Bieber and his rotation mates. It was a bullpen game, with Cal Quantrill starting and throwing four scoreless innings. After giving up two runs in the top of the 10th, they won on Jose Ramirez’s three-run walk-off home run. Ramirez has been on a Mount Everest-high hot streak of late, hitting .356/.434/.828 in his past 23 games.

At times, Ramirez almost feels like a one-man offense, however. Francisco Lindor has been OK but not great. Carlos Santana draws walks but is hitting under .200. Franmil Reyes has had his moments. But, like the Cubs, you wonder if there’s enough offense here for a long October run.

The Braves also clinched on Tuesday, and they’re the opposite of the Cubs and Indians — they crush. They beat the Marlins 11-1 behind five home runs — two from Marcell Ozuna, one from MVP candidate Freddie Freeman, plus shots from Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson. Six guys in the lineup are all slugging above .500, with Ozuna, Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. above .600. By runs per game, it’s the best offense in Braves history (well, at least going back to the 1890s). They lead the NL (and the majors) in runs per game, which they last did in 2003.

Pitching or hitting? Which do you like in the postseason? — David Schoenfield

Also of note: Brutal day for the Phillies, who dropped a doubleheader to the Nationals. Austin Voth, who entered 0-5 with a 7.17 ERA, tossed the seven-inning complete game to win the opener, and then 32-year-old Yadiel Hernandez slugged his first MLB home run, a two-run walk-off against Brandon Workman in the eighth inning to win the nightcap. Workman fell to 1-4 with three blown saves and a 6.92 ERA since joining the Phillies. Philadelphia’s bullpen ERA: 7.06. … The Brewers got back to .500 with a 3-2 win over the Reds. The story here is rookie setup man Devin Williams, who fanned five in two hitless innings. His numbers are absolutely ridiculous: 25 IP, 6 H, 9 BB, 52 SO, 1 HR, 4 R, 1 ER, 0.36 ERA. … Gerrit Cole made his final start before the postseason — he’ll have seven days of rest before his Game 1 start — and allowed one run (a Cavan Biggio home run) in seven easy innings to beat the Blue Jays. … With the Marlins and Reds losing, the Cardinals jump all the way up to the National League’s fifth seed after shutting out the Royals. The No. 5 seed is not where you want to land in the NL, with a first-round matchup against the Padres and then a likely Division Series against the Dodgers. Then again, you’re going to have beat somebody good to get to the World Series.

The Dodgers clinched the NL West with their 7-2 win over the Athletics. The last year the Dodgers didn’t win their division was 2012, when they finished second behind the Giants. It is the longest stretch of division titles in either league since the Yankees won the AL East nine straight times from 1998 to 2006.


Pennant race debate: Which one player are you most excited to see this postseason?

David Schoenfield: Shane Bieber. The Indians haven’t won the World Series since 1948, and they are hardly the favorites to win the American League, but Bieber is the pitcher most likely to have a Madison Bumgarner in 2014 type of run and carry an otherwise mediocre team to the title.

Joon Lee: Tim Anderson not only finds himself in the middle of a chase with DJ LeMahieu for his second straight batting title, but also for the American League MVP with Cleveland Indians hurler Shane Bieber and teammate Jose Abreu amid another career season during a pandemic. Anderson is the heart and soul of the insurgent White Sox, and the 27-year-old shortstop will be making the first playoff appearance of his career. When considering those circumstances, his penchant for bringing excitement and flair to the field and his dynamic bat at the top of the lineup on the South Side, Anderson figures to make a sizable impression with the eyes of baseball fans nationwide squarely focused on the young and exciting White Sox squad.

Sam Miller: Yu Darvish hasn’t appeared in the postseason since his disastrous pair of starts in the 2017 World Series, and in the ensuing period he has changed teams, gotten hurt, been a bust, added yet another pitch and once more become — surprisingly, but not too surprisingly — one of the world’s five best starting pitchers. He has never had the control over his arsenal that he has now, and nobody is more of a threat to throw a no-hitter in any given start. He doesn’t need to redeem himself for the 2017 World Series — his career is so much more than those two starts — but it’ll be really satisfying to watch him play the ace this October.

Bradford Doolittle: In both 1997 (Livan Hernandez) and 2003 (Josh Beckett), the Marlins’ championship runs were fueled by a hot, emergent pitcher. While I’m not predicting Miami will go on a title romp if it gets into the playoffs, Sixto Sanchez could be that kind of emergent pitcher for them this October. Both his traditional results and his Statcast metrics are elite, and he could be going up against a club that has never seen him before in the opener of a best-of-three series. And that opponent could end up being the Dodgers.

Alden Gonzalez: Sixto Sanchez — because I don’t think anybody has an answer for him at the moment.

Key games ahead

Yankees-Blue Jays, Tuesday (6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN): The Yankees, trying to stay within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the AL, turn to Gerrit Cole in a potential first-round preview.

Cardinals-Royals, Wednesday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN2): St. Louis is fighting for a playoff spot, adding some extra juice to this Missouri matchup.

Brewers-Cardinals, Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN+): Milwaukee and St. Louis begin a season-ending five-game series that could have major implications on two of the NL’s remaining playoff spots.

Phillies-Rays, Friday (6:40 p.m. ET on ESPN+): The Phillies could enter this final series of the weekend on either side of the line for the final playoff spots while the Rays are currently in a tight race for the AL’s No. 1 overall seed.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

play

2:00

Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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