With less than a month to go until Election Day, former Vice-President Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump by an?average?of more than nine percentage points in national polls. Biden has been ahead for the entire year, and he also received something of a polling bounce after Trump’s chaotic performance in the first Presidential debate.
Still, a?plurality?of Americans believe Trump will win the election, and the President’s approval rating has remained in the low-to-mid-forties all year, despite the fact that a clear majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. There also remains considerable skepticism about the accuracy of polls, which missed Trump’s strength in the key Midwestern states that delivered him the White House in 2016. Moreover, Trump is likely to perform better in the Midwest and Florida than he will nationally, which means that he could still win the election despite losing the popular vote by several percentage points. (Currently, Biden leads narrowly in Florida, and by slightly larger margins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.) The numbers place Biden in the lead, but much uncertainty remains, with record numbers of voters submitting ballots by mail, a coronavirus outbreak in the White House, and the continued effects of the pandemic across the country.
I recently spoke by phone with Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, and the co-author of the Almanac of American Politics 2014. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether pollsters have addressed the mistakes of 2016, whether the Biden campaign should go all out to try to win Texas, and how Trump might perform differently now that he is running as an incumbent.
Why should we trust the polls?
Generally speaking, the polls have been pretty good over the years, and given enough time you'll do better with polls than just your gut instinct. But polls are imperfect instruments. When you trust the polls, you need to trust them for what they are, which is not oracular, perfect insights of wisdom but, rather, a good metric of where things stand right now.
How confident are you that pollsters have fixed the problems we saw in 2016, especially in the Midwest?
I’m still concerned. If you look at 2018, the polling in the Midwest wasn't that great. We were supposed to have a Democratic governor in Ohio. There was supposed to be a Democratic governor in Iowa. There was supposed to be a Democratic senator from Indiana. The Democratic senators in Ohio and Michigan both underperformed the polls.
Florida was off a little, too, right?
Florida was very off. I think there were, like, one or two polls that showed Ron DeSantis winning the entire way. And people forget that in 2012 there was a big polling miss, but it just happened to be in the Democrats’ favor, so it didn’t affect the outcome. It’s good that people are starting to weight [results] by college education, because that’s a salient factor, but in terms of treating [polls] as things that can’t be off by two, three, four points? No, I wouldn’t do that.
Is there anything in the polls that you are concerned about this time? Anything along the lines of not weighting by college education?
There’s a possibility that the problem wasn’t, in fact, that pollsters weren’t weighting by college education. That was the big, easy fix. But maybe it was something else. We don’t know what it is. The 2018 results give me some pause. I look at the polls showing Biden with twenty-per-cent-plus leads among older voters, with boomers voting roughly the same as millennials, and Gen Z, and that makes me nervous. I can tell myself a story about why that would happen, but I can also tell myself a story about conservative Trump voters hearing, “Hi, I’m from NBC/Wall Street Journal polling,” and hanging up the phone because they don’t trust the mainstream media. That makes me very nervous.
What you’re talking about is not exactly the same, but it seems connected to this idea of the “shy Trump voter,” which is this theory that there is social stigma attached to voting for Trump, so voters would not tell pollsters that they were going to do so. But we don’t really have any evidence that shy Trump voters actually exist, correct?
It’s a story you can tell yourself, but I don’t think the evidence is that good for it.
Why do you think the evidence isn’t very good for it?
In Internet polling, you just click on your keyboard, and no one really knows how you answered. When you get a robo poll, it’s just that automated voice, and you’re pressing buttons. But when it’s a live person on the other end, there’s maybe a one- or two-point dropoff in Trump’s performance from the live polls, and you might ascribe that to shy Trumpers.
There’s also this question of Trump’s job approval, which is running two or three points ahead of his vote share. And, going back in time, Presidential job approval is one of the strongest indicators we have of how the President is going to fare. Who are these people that approve of the job he’s doing but aren’t going to vote for him? Again, you can tell yourself a story. There are people who like his policies, but hate his persona. But it could also be that these are voters who are saying they’re undecided, but they really aren’t. But, again, this is just kind of conjecture, it’s not really good evidence.
So you’re saying we have reasons to think the polls might be off for various reasons, but there’s not great evidence for any of them?
Yeah, there aren’t, like, flashing red lights, but there are things where, if Trump does end up winning, or coming very close, we’re going to look at these things and say, “Ah, there it was all along.”
It seems like the best case for Biden right now is not just that he’s ahead and that there are fewer undecided voters than in 2016 but that he’s been ahead so consistently. It’s not clear that there’s been any point in the race, going back to the beginning of the year, where Trump actually was leading him in enough states to get to two hundred and sixty-nine electoral votes. Is that your sense, too?
I think that is probably the single best argument why we wouldn’t see something like 2016. If you go back to 2016, that race wanted to be a two-point race. It would be close to two points, and then Trump would do something stupid like talk about the judge who couldn’t rule for him because he was “Mexican.” And Clinton would blow up a lead, and then it would tighten back to two points, and then he would insult Khizr Khan and his family, and the lead would blow open. This is different. This is a race where it’s actually been kind of boring. Polls usually have Biden up six, seven points.
It seems like that’s the number that the polls want to be at. You have events like the murder of George Floyd, and Trump’s response to that, and then you had the debate, and Trump’s positive test last week, which pushed them a little higher. But, basically, since the pandemic started, it hovers around seven.
Yeah. I think that’s right.
So, then, what would need to change for Trump to win? What, in addition to the polls being wrong, are we going to look back at in a month and say, “Boy, we were sure wrong when we talked in October”?
The story I have mentally pre-written is that job-approval thing. He had gotten up to like forty-six per cent [among likely voters], which means that a lot of these undecideds are probably going to break for him, because they ultimately approve of the job he’s doing.
If what we’re seeing right now is just differential response, which is a well-established phenomenon. When there’s a big blowup in the news cycles, one party won’t answer polls. That could be what we’re seeing right now. And so if, in a couple of weeks, this has gone back to him being at forty-five or forty-six per cent, and he’s leading Biden on the economy by eight, nine points, that’s the story for why he wins if he does.