On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami

In the midst of an unprecedented cascade of events that upend news cycles on a seemingly hourly basis, from a global pandemic to a sputtering economy, protests rocking American cities and a coming battle that could redefine the Supreme Court, the battle for the White House has remained remarkably stable.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMissouri woman seen with Pelosi sign charged in connection with Capitol riots Facebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP MORE holds a significant and steady lead over President TrumpDonald TrumpFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Section 230 worked after the insurrection, but not before: How to regulate social media MORE. Since capturing the Democratic nomination this spring, Biden’s lead in national surveys has never fallen below 4 points in the RealClearPolitics average. It briefly crested 10 points in late June, and it trades somewhere around 6 points today.

“It’s been a fairly stable polling cycle, despite these cataclysmic earthquakes — I shouldn’t say earthquakes, it’s probably the only thing we haven’t had,” said Lee Miringoff, who directs the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “The movement has been fairly undramatic. Biden has been ahead over Trump wire to wire.”


Pollsters have spent the busy weeks after Labor Day conducting dozens of surveys across the country. Since Sunday, 54 presidential polls have been released, surveys both of the national electorate and of voters in swing and even safe states.

On Wednesday alone, pollsters released four surveys of Florida voters, three in Arizona and two each in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Republican, Democratic and independent pollsters interviewed this week say the electorate is hardening, and fewer voters are open to any option other than the candidate they have already chosen. Even the introduction of a new variable into the race — a Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader Ginsburg, George Floyd among options for 'Remember the Titans' school's new name Bipartisan anger builds over police failure at Capitol Lindsey Graham praises Merrick Garland as 'sound choice' to serve as attorney general MORE — has not moved the dial.

That has Republicans, especially, worried that a wave is building against them.

“Nothing is moving the numbers for Republicans,” said one Republican pollster, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about his party’s prospects. “The GOP base of white voters without college degrees is not big enough, and we’ve done nothing to add any other coalition groups.”

Both Democrats and Republicans make the case that a Supreme Court fight could rally their voters — though polls show so many voters are excited and enthusiastic about voting that there appear to be few left to rally. If anything, the Republican pollster said, the open Supreme Court seat may hurt Republicans among independent women.


Democrats are still stung by 2016, when state surveys showed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFor Joe Biden, an experienced foreign policy team Millennials and the great reckoning on race Biden chooses Amanda Gorman as youngest known inaugural poet MORE leading by a substantial margin until the closing days of the race. But Biden has reached the all-important 50-percent mark in polls in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and even Ohio this week — an apex that Clinton did not manage in September polls four years ago.

What makes Republican pollsters most nervous is the degree to which their down-ballot candidates are tracking with Trump’s performance. Few Republicans are running substantially ahead of Trump in House and Senate races.

Polls conducted this week show Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-Maine), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Military survivors of child sex abuse deserve more NASA selects the next Artemis moonwalkers while SpaceX flies a Starship MORE (R-Iowa), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed MORE (R-Ariz.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 Top GOP senators acknowledge Biden as president-elect after Electoral College vote MORE (R-N.C.) trailing their Democratic opponents. Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time McConnell says he's undecided on whether to vote to convict Trump Member of Senate GOP leadership: Impeaching Trump 'not going to happen' MORE (R-Mont.) is statistically tied with Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockBiden's identity politics do a disservice to his nominees Senate Democrat: Party's message to rural voters is 'really flawed' Ducey to lead Republican governors MORE (D).

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) leads Democrat Jon Ossoff by slim margins, and he sits below 50 percent in three polls released this week. The race for the other Georgia Senate seat, held by appointed Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerNikki Haley unveils PAC ahead of possible 2024 White House bid McConnell has said he thinks Trump committed impeachable offenses: report Top Republican congressional aide resigns, rips GOP lawmakers who objected to Biden win MORE (R), seems destined for a January runoff.

Even Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCruz, Cornyn to attend Biden inauguration McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Rick Scott will 'likely' join challenge to election results MORE (R-Texas) is no shoo-in; he leads his Democratic opponent, MJ Hegar, by between 5 and 8 points, and he reached the critical 50 percent mark in just one of three Texas polls released in the last week.

The sheer volume of surveys conducted in recent weeks stands in stark contrast to 2016, when few bothered to survey electorates in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — three traditionally Democratic states that broke against Clinton and for Trump in the race’s closing days.

Those states are not being ignored today.

In 2016, just two pollsters surveyed Wisconsin voters in September. So far this month, 10 surveys of Wisconsin voters have been released, and Miringoff plans to release an 11th this weekend. Biden has led all 10 polls released so far, by between 4 and 10 points.

Four years ago, Michigan voters were surveyed by five different public pollsters in September. Nine polls have been conducted there this year; Biden leads in all but one survey, conducted by a Republican pollster.

Seven polls of Pennsylvania voters are public this month, matching the total number of polls conducted in September 2016.

“People looked at 2016 and said there’s not enough polling,” said David Paleologos, who directs the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “You can never poll too many states.”

Indeed, this year pollsters are wandering further afield. The New York Times and Siena College, Colby College and the Boston Globe and Suffolk have all polled in Maine in the last two weeks. Usually safe Republican states like Montana, Missouri and Utah, and usually safe Democratic states like Maryland, California and Vermont, have all been surveyed lately.

Electorates in emerging battlegrounds like Texas, Georgia, Ohio and Iowa have been polled repeatedly in recent weeks. Paleologos said he will start surveying Arizona, perhaps the Biden campaign’s best chance to expand the map beyond a more traditional battleground, on Saturday.

The intense interest voters say they have in this year’s race is fueling some of those surveys. Pollsters are also benefiting from a more diverse array of survey methodologies, testing people online or via robocall in addition to the more costly method of live callers.

“I think you’re seeing a lot of polls in part because of the interest in the race and the news value. Also the mode of collecting data does not break the bank,” Miringoff said. “There’s a lot of polls that are not done using live interviewers, so those don’t get into the cost issues that the few of us who use live interviewers get into.”

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.