Mellman: Is Biden really ahead of Trump?

As of today, Joe BidenJoe BidenNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter Trump narrows Biden's lead in Pennsylvania: poll Florida breaks first-day early voting record with 350K ballots cast MORE clearly leads Donald Trump in the race for the White House. Suggesting otherwise borders on the foolish.

At the same time, while the odds favor Biden in November, a prognosticator would be equally foolish to contend that Trump can’t prevail in the end.

Begin considering the present by consulting the past.


Despite all the criticism, on average, the national polls were pretty much on target in 2016. RealClearPolitics computed a simple average of late national polls and found Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLate night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study 10 steps toward better presidential debating Continuity is (mostly) on the menu for government contracting in the next administration MORE leading the popular vote by 3.3 percentage points. She won it by 2.1 points, for an error of 1.2 percentage points — which is pretty darn small.

An investigation by a committee of experts, commissioned by the American Association of Public Opinion Research, examined polls completed in the last two weeks of the 2016 election and buttressed the RealClearPolitics result, finding an average error of 1.3 percentage points.

Right now, RealClearPolitics’s arithmetic reveals an average national Biden lead of 8.1 points.

Let’s say these results are off by more than they were in 2016 and are as “bad” as they were in 2012, when polls missed the mark by 2.4 points. (That would also be worse than the average error of 2.0 since 1992.)

If the current polls are off by 2.4 points in a pro-Biden direction—Biden’s lead would still be 5.7 points.

“Yes,” you reply, “but the national popular vote is irrelevant—Clinton won that worthless prize, but lost the Electoral College, and with it the White House.”


True, but the national popular is not completely divorced from the vote in states. In the real world, the chances of Biden winning the national popular vote by 5.7 points and losing the Electoral College is vanishingly small — not zero, but vanishingly small.

By comparison, Clinton’s chances of losing with a 2-point margin was about 30 percent.

But let’s look more closely at those states. As of today, Biden enjoys leads in states sufficient to yield a substantial Electoral College victory.

“But,” you rightly suggest, “the state polls were farther off than the national surveys in the last presidential election.”

Right again. But dig a bit deeper.

In 2016, Wisconsin proved to be the pivotal state in the Electoral College.

Today, Badger State voters give Biden a 4-point lead on average. In 2016, polls there were wrong by an average of 6.5 points, enough to cast some doubt on Biden’s current standing there. The same is true in Pennsylvania.

However, Michigan was also critical, and there Biden’s ahead by 7.3 points. The 2016 error was a lesser 3.5 points. So, even if the error is of the same magnitude as in 2016, Biden leads there today. In Florida, Biden’s current lead is slightly larger than the error in 2016.

In Arizona, not a single late poll showed Clinton ahead and, on average, surveys gave Trump a slightly bigger margin than he actually earned. Today Biden enjoys a 3.4-point advantage.

Adding it all together, if we take today’s state polling and assume it is as far off as it was in 2016, Joe Biden would still win an Electoral College majority.

However, while it would be foolish to deny Biden leads today, it would be only slightly less silly to assume that his victory in November is assured.

Things can change between now and then. Having acknowledged the possibility, I confess it’s hard to imagine what could change voters’ deeply ingrained, very negative views of President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE.


However, I live in a world of probabilities, not certainties. Joe Biden is probably going to win. Maybe that means he has a 75 percent chance of prevailing. Those are good odds — I’d bet them every time — but 25 percent events do happen, about a quarter of the time.

Recent history reinforces an important lesson: Modesty about our ability to predict the future is wise. Arrogant certainty is not.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.