Joe BidenJoe BidenMarcus Garvey's descendants call for Biden to pardon civil rights leader posthumously GOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors MORE is enjoying a comfortable lead over Donald Trump in the polls. The Real Clear Politics average has the former vice president ahead of the incumbent president by 7 points. Biden is even ahead in the survey by Fox News, an outlet not known as a liberal bastion. Does this lead in the polls promise victory in November? The answer is a resounding no.
To start, Trump trailing Democratic contenders is nothing new. He was behind Hillary Clinton in the polls at almost every moment in 2016 yet he won the election. This was not a rare exception that proves the rule. The terrain of White House contests is littered with nominees who saw a lead in the spring turn to dust in the fall. The list is long and discouraging for early front runners in election years. Starting with Thomas Dewey in 1948, it spans Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, George Bush, and John Kerry, to cite the most spectacular cases in recent history.
One reason that early polls are poor predictors is the campaign. The real contest does not begin in earnest until after the party conventions have formally nominated the candidates. The best proof for the importance of the campaign is still Harry Truman in 1948. Logging 20,000 miles on the Ferdinand Magellan with stops wherever the train took him, he literally gained ground on Dewey with every visit he made along the route. Polls missed the surge in support for Truman because they ended a few weeks before Election Day with an assumption that the race was over.
Since 1960, a main feature of campaigns has been televised debates. They afforded John Kennedy the golden opportunity to showcase his personal appeal in contrast to his less charismatic opponent. The audience, whose size matched the voting public, was certainly impressed with Kennedy. As a result, Nixon lost his lead in national polls and Kennedy went on to win the election. Nixon himself was convinced that the debates cost him the election, and he would never again participate in any debates.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan used a campaign debate with Jimmy Carter to turn the tide in polls that had him trailing by as much as 25 points in the spring. Perhaps best remembered is the question Reagan posed to the audience. He asked, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan knew how Americans would answer given the bad state of the economy back then. It was a huge blow to the Carter campaign. A few days later, voters took the rational action and elected Reagan.
In 2016, Trump made ground in polls that saw him trailing Hillary Clinton by as much as 20 points in the spring but he was unable to overtake her in the end. It did not matter as Trump won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote. The Trump campaign focused on swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that the Clinton campaign ignored. National polls did not capture that other side of the campaign. It would serve as a warning to observers who are fixated on national polls this year.
Along this vein, a recent national poll shows Biden ahead of Trump. But it also reveals Trump has a lead in more than a dozen swing states. In 2016, as the record shows, those states split almost evenly between Trump and Clinton. This year, the same states favor Trump over Biden by 7 points. If anything, this portends an even bigger victory for Trump in the Electoral College and then second place in the popular vote once again.
Helmut Norpoth is a political science professor at Stony Brook University. His new book is “Unsurpassed: The Popular Appeal of Franklin Roosevelt.”