On The Trail: Making sense of Super Poll Sunday

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Pollsters left it all on the field this weekend in a last-minute survey blitz that offered one final snapshot of the race for the White House. 

Different polls can show widely divergent results: Surveys conducted in the past week have found Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) leading her challenger, Democrat Theresa Greenfield, by as much as 6 points — or trailing by as much as 6 points.

But 48 hours before the polls — the ones that actually count — close, a deep dive into what is likely to be the final significant data dump of the year shows some of the trends that have defined this election cycle.

Here are the takeaways from a mammoth day in polling:

Biden leads across most swing states 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leads in the swing states that will get him to 270 electoral votes, and by substantial margins.  

Biden leads all six surveys of Michigan voters released this weekend, and he tops 50 percent in four of them. He leads all five surveys of Wisconsin voters, by margins of 3 to 11 points. And he is ahead in five of six surveys of Pennsylvania voters released in the last two days, by margins of 4 to 7 points; the lone exception is an InsiderAdvantage poll that has President Trump up 2. 

The Democratic nominee is also ahead of the Republican incumbent in three of four polls of Arizona voters and four of six surveys in Florida, two states that are essential to Trump’s path to a second term. 

Trump is by no means guaranteed defeat, but he is clearly in a worse position now than he was four years ago. Polls over the last weekend before the 2016 contest showed Trump trailing by slimmer margins in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and leading by a substantial margin in a state like Georgia.

This weekend’s polls also showed Biden closer to or over the 50 percent mark nationally and in some battleground states, a point Hillary Clinton never managed to reach in 2016.

One significant difference: Polls tend to show Libertarian and Green Party candidates collecting higher shares of the vote than they actually end up with on Election Day. 

Four years ago, support for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, collapsed in the final days as Trump appeared to capture much of Johnson’s support. This year, neither minor party has a candidate who has captured anything like the attention Johnson or Green Party nominee Jill Stein received in 2016. That suggests the polls are a better reflection of reality, and less likely to miss some kind of hidden support that could break late for one candidate or the other.

Biden is building a new coalition 

Biden’s lead comes from some unlikely groups — those who voted for Trump four years ago. 

In key swing states and nationally, Biden leads among independents, white voters with a college degree, voters in the suburbs and seniors, all groups that favored Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Shifts among white voters with a college degree have been especially stark. In 2016, Trump led Hillary Clinton among those voters by 6 points in Arizona, 8 points in Michigan, 12 points in Wisconsin and 27 points in Florida. Polls released this weekend show Biden leading among college-educated whites by 3 to 15 points in Arizona, 27 points in Michigan, 26 points in Wisconsin and 4 points in Florida. 

Among independents, Trump beat Clinton in Georgia, Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by margins ranging from 3 points to 16 points. Over the weekend, Biden polled ahead of Trump among the demographic in every survey released in those states by margins up to 28 points in a Muhlenberg College poll in Pennsylvania.  

It’s always important to remember that subgroups — like seniors or college-educated whites — are smaller samples that carry larger margins of error than the complete samples polled. What’s notable, though, is the breadth of the shift. Biden improves on Clinton’s performance in every single state and every single poll for which data on those subgroups was released.

We don’t know if these shifts are part of a long-term political realignment — frankly, “long-term” isn’t a terribly durable concept in an era in which five of the last seven elections have been waves. But Biden is setting up what looks like a historic coalition. 

Older voters are skeptical of Trump

No Democrat has won senior voters since Bill Clinton’s reelection bid in 1996. But Biden is doing much better among voters eligible to collect Social Security than any of his recent predecessors.

Take Pennsylvania, a state Trump won by only about 44,000 votes in 2016. He beat Clinton among seniors by 10 percentage points, according to exit polls, 54 percent to 44 percent.  

Four polls released this weekend all show Biden leading among the oldest cohort. He’s ahead among seniors by 4 points in the Muhlenberg College poll, by 6 in an Emerson survey, by 12 in a Siena College poll conducted for the New York Times, and by 15 points in a Washington Post/ABC News poll

In Florida, Trump won seniors by a 57 percent to 40 percent margin. This weekend, Emerson and Siena both showed Biden leading, by 8 and 2 points, respectively. 

There are signs that Trump’s lackluster response to the coronavirus pandemic has hurt him most among seniors, the population most vulnerable to the worst outcomes of COVID-19. State and national polls show seniors think Biden would do a better job handling the pandemic; those same polls also show seniors believe Biden would do a better job handling the economy. 

Trump has not helped himself in recent weeks. After his own diagnosis, he urged Americans not to let the virus dominate their lives. That didn’t resonate well with seniors who very much do fear the virus, and who have missed grandchildren for the last seven months because of it.

Biden is limiting losses

Biden’s campaign is doing well among those groups mentioned above that voted for Trump in 2016. But there is movement, too, among groups that still favor Trump.

Clinton’s performance among white voters who did not attend college in 2016 was abysmal, the end result of a long-term realignment of blue-collar Americans who no longer vote the way their unions advise — probably because they no longer belong to a union.

She lost among non-college educated whites by more than 20 points in Wisconsin. She lost the demographic by more than 30 points in Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and North Carolina. 

Polls this weekend show Biden losing those voters too — but by relatively slimmer margins. Polls show Biden losing those voters by about 5 points in Wisconsin, 15 points in Michigan, 20 points in Pennsylvania and by 25 in Florida. Big margins, to be sure — but not as bad as Clinton’s margins.

Pay attention to exit polls on race

Here’s one silver lining for Trump: In some swing states, he’s doing better among nonwhite voters than he did four years ago, in spite of a long history of stoking racial tensions.

Polls this weekend showed Trump winning between 18 percent and 20 percent of the nonwhite vote in Pennsylvania, up from the 16 percent he won in 2016; in Ohio and Michigan, Emerson polls showed Trump improving on his 2016 standing among nonwhites by 7 points. 

There’s not much indication that Trump has improved among Black voters specifically, despite his focus on an unemployment rate among Black Americans that dropped to its lowest rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping track. Trump takes just 8 percent of the Black vote in a CNN poll released over the weekend, about the same share as he collected there in the 2016 exit polls. 

Polls of Hispanic voters in Florida are all over the place. In 2016, Trump won 35 percent of those voters in a state where the Hispanic population includes traditionally conservative people of Cuban and Venezuelan descent. An Emerson poll released this weekend showed Trump receiving just 21 percent of the Hispanic vote; a survey conducted by St. Pete Polls, a local outlet, had Trump claiming 46 percent of the vote among Hispanics. 

Contra to Trump’s gains with nonwhite voters, Biden is doing better among white voters — and especially Southern white voters — than Clinton did. Polls this weekend show Biden outperforming Clinton’s vote share among whites in Georgia by 8 points, North Carolina by 4 to 8 points, and Florida by 8 points. 

Up north, Biden is holding Trump’s advantage down among white voters. In Wisconsin, Trump won whites by 11 points in 2016; he leads by 6 in a CNN poll this weekend. In Michigan, Trump’s 21-point advantage from 2016 is now a 1-point lead for Biden. And in Pennsylvania, where Trump won whites by 16 four years ago, he’s now up by 4 points in the Washington Post-ABC poll and by 8 in the Muhlenberg College poll. 

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

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Gary Johnson Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Joni Ernst Mitt Romney

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