2020 polling: A trip down short-term memory lane

As the presidential battle among Democrats heats up, there are new polls and predictions every day as to how it will turn out. A recent Marquette University Law poll finds both former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would beat President Trump in Wisconsin.

Some news reporters and pundits seem to use polls to try to shape public opinion, rather than report on a snapshot in time. 

“Biden is the only Democrat who can beat Trump,” say some. “All the polls show him in first place.” Everyone else might as well hang it up.

“Biden is doomed as a candidate,” insist others. He should bow out.

Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)? Too far left. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)? Not left enough. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)? Dead in the water.

Or, how about this recent finding from Quinnipiac University: Every top major Democrat beats Trump by at least nine points. 

It’s time for a friendly intervention — in the form of a look back at some predictions and punditry about this time in Campaign 2016. We’ll call it a trip down short-term memory lane. Many polls ultimately turned out to be poor predictors — early and often.

Going back to May of 2015, a Quinnipiac poll found Donald Trump topped the “no way” list among Republicans, with 21 percent of GOP voters saying they would definitely not support him. 

And on June 22, 2015, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll put Trump at 1 percent, behind 10 Republican candidates: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, retired surgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. The same poll put Trump at rock bottom among 16 candidates when Republican voters were asked: “Could you see yourselves supporting this candidate?”

On June 24, 2015, Politico’s Daniel Strauss tried to tamp down fears that Trump actually could be a winner. “Whispers of a Trump surge are making the rounds,” wrote Strauss. “It might be wise to take a deep breath. … Nationally, Trump’s polling has been on the decline.” Strauss quoted a Suffolk University pollster as saying Trump’s favorable polling means people have seen him on TV but, “That doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for him. … Everybody should calm down.” 

Former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen declared there was “no visible grassroots movement for Trump” in New Hampshire. And Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said, “At the end of the day, it’s quite possible that Donald Trump will get 11 percent in New Hampshire, but that might be his cap.” (Trump won the Republican primary in New Hampshire with just over 35 percent of the vote.)

On July 1, 2015, a CNN poll found “(Hillary) Clinton’s clearest advantage … is over Donald Trump,” putting Clinton’s advantage at 25 full percentage points: 59-34 percent. On July 14, 2015, a USA Today-Suffolk poll found Trump trailing Clinton by 17 points: 51-34 percent. On July 30, 2015, Quinnipiac found Sanders to be a winner, topping Trump 44-39 percent.

Precisely four years ago, in September 2015, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Clinton in “dead heats” against Jeb Bush, Carson and Fiorina. “The only Republican whom Clinton led by a significant margin was businessman Donald Trump.” Sanders would beat Trump by “16 points, more than Clinton, who had only a 10-point lead” over Trump, said the poll. Later that month, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll determined Clinton would stamp Trump, 49-39 percent.

Moving closer to the primaries, on Nov. 23, 2015, Nate Silver of the polling site FiveThirtyEight measured the odds of a Trump win and concluded Trump’s odds were “higher than zero but (considerably) less than 20 percent.”

A Dec. 14, 2015, NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll determined that Clinton would beat Trump by 10 points and Cruz by 3 points, but would lose to Rubio and Carson.

Also in December 2015, Salon political writer Sean Illing declared that if Trump faced off against Clinton, it “would not only hand the presidency to the Democrats, it would also lead to a Democratic landslide up and down the ballot.” (Republicans retained their majorities in the House, Senate and governorships. Illing now provides political analysis to Vox.) 

Later that month, Rolling Stone’s Tom Dickinson declared Trump would get “schlonged” by Sanders based on a Quinnipiac poll that found the margin to be Sanders 51 percent, Trump 38 percent. “Sen. Bernie Sanders hammers [Trump],” said Quinnipiac’s Tim Malloy. Also, “Hillary Clinton tops [Trump],” added Malloy, 47-40 percent.

Also in December 2015, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey determined “Clinton would smash Trump 50-40 percent.” Rubio beat Clinton 48-45 percent. A Fox News survey said Clinton would thump Trump 49-38 percent, and Rubio would beat Clinton 45-43 percent.

Deroy Murdock of National Review predicted a Trump nomination would “engineer a Hillary Clinton landslide.” He advised, “Republican voters should nominate a stalwart, quick-witted conservative whose immigrant roots and modest means make him a far more elusive target for Clinton’s slings and arrows.” That man, Murdock said, was Rubio. (Murdock is a Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online.)

In Jan. 2016, David Wasserman wrote in FiveThirtyEight that a Trump nomination would make Clinton’s election “very likely,” would “raise the odds of a Democratic Senate” and “increase pressure on a center-right candidate to mount an independent bid and split the GOP asunder.” He concluded: “In other words, if you’re a member of the Republican Party who wants to win in November, it’s basically Rubio or bust.” (Wasserman provides election analysis for Cook Political Report and NBC. His bio notes he is “trusted by Republicans and Democrats as accurate.”)

In March 2016, a just-the-facts analysis of hard data by TheConversation.com determined Trump would not win enough electoral votes in a match-up against Clinton, with just 236 — 34 fewer than the 270 needed. (They were off by 68. Trump received 304 electoral votes, 34 more than needed. Clinton actually ended up with even fewer electoral votes than the deficit predicted for Trump.) 

The above-mentioned polls may well have been spot on at the time. But that punctuates the point: Wherever we are today is not necessarily an accurate predictor — or even close to it — of where we’ll end up. To put things in perspective, at this time four years ago, Trump was in the territory of where Democrats Andrew Yang (3 percent), Gabbard (1 percent) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (1 percent) are today

So, it can be entertaining to speculate — but when it comes to serious prognostication, it’s best for all of us to keep in mind that November 2020 may seem near, yet is so far.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”

Tags 2016 presidential campaign 2020 Democrats 2020 presidential election Amy Klobuchar Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Joe Biden opinion polling Sharyl Attkisson Tulsi Gabbard

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