Of polls, presidential elections and Democratic jitters

Getty Images

Like generals, politicians and pundits usually fight the last war; today they’re seeing this presidential election through the prism of 2016.

Democrats worry that the polls understate Trump’s support, that they are irrelevant to the president’s solid electoral college advantage and look at the betting markets, which continue to favor the incumbent.

News flash: This is not 2016, and all these parallels are exaggerated.

Yes, it’s true at this time four years ago Hillary Clinton enjoyed a similarly clear advantage in national and state surveys. And yes, most pundits, including this one, and most politicians, including Trump, thought she was going to win.

The polls, however, didn’t get it all wrong. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, which is what national surveys measure. The final major network/newspaper polls all showed Clinton winning by four points. The election eve Bloomberg survey, by Ann Selzer, had the Democrat ahead by three, which was rounded up. Clinton actually won the popular vote by 2.1 points. You can’t get much closer than that. (The Los Angeles Times, which has been credited with getting it right, had Trump winning by five; it was, in fact, seven points off.)

Well, there’s always the Republicans’ electoral college lock, the skeptics say. In 28 of the past 30 presidential elections the vote and the college were in sync. The 2000 election was essentially a tie with the Republican majority on the Supreme Court awarding it to George W. Bush.

The one real outlier in more than a century was 2016, attributable — in part — to Clinton miscalculations. With the possible exception of a one point or so margin, this November will almost certainly return to regular order.

There are must-win states. For Biden, it’s all the states Clinton carried plus Pennsylvania and Michigan. That would almost even up the electoral college count. Republicans say they may pick off a couple blue states, citing Minnesota, New Hampshire and Nevada. None look that promising at the moment.

There are a half dozen Trump states, besides Michigan and Pennsylvania, that are in play — where Biden is either ahead or running even: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia and Ohio.

Trump can ill afford to lose any of those states.

I have a good sense of what national polls are accurate. With a number of the state surveys it’s a guess, though the expert political site, FiveThirtyEight, says many are ok.

What’s striking, however, is the consistency — in line with a five to seven Biden advantage, whether deep blue, deep red or swing states.

A Kentucky survey this month had Trump winning by 16; four years ago, he won by 30. A Missouri poll had Trump up by four in a state he won by 19 points.

It’s the same story in Clinton states. Biden’s 26-point advantage in Washington state now compares to her 16-point victory. Minnesota, which the Democrats carried by a little more than a point, now has Biden ahead by five.

Of course, these are snapshots in time and can change. The advantage and dynamics today are different from 2016. Then, Hillary was the issue, and a lot of voters didn’t much like her and were reluctant supporters.

Subsequent surveys showed most of the voters that didn’t like either candidate held their nose and opted for Trump. Now voters that don’t like either one opt for Biden. If you can’t take the vitriol and the circus, you go for the alternative.

Events always can change, but it would have to be huge, like a major heath issue, to change these dynamics. Voters are familiar with Biden; his gaffes and manufactured scandals don’t move the political needle.

If Trump had taken charge and led on the pandemic, it might have made a difference. He didn’t. People know the terrible price paid in lives and treasure. The certain claim he’ll make of how much worse it would have been won’t fly.

So how about those betting markets? The Real Clear Politics average is 49 percent to 45 percent Trump. Right before the last election, the bettors were 80 percent Clinton.

One factor in today’s numbers is betting that Trump will find a way to manipulate the outcome. There seems little doubt he’ll try. Someone should tell the bettors that’s a sign of weakness.

When — a little over five months out — a candidate warns the outcome may be “rigged,” it’s a clear signal: That candidate knows he can’t win a legitimate election.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2016 Polls 2020 election 2020 polls betting Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Electoral College Hillary Clinton Joe Biden popular vote rigged election swing states

More Campaign News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video