Nervous Democrats Hope Biden’s ‘Historic’ Lead Doesn’t Become Another Historic Polling Fail


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Polls show former Vice President Joe Biden leading the 2020 race for president, with CNN over the weekend suggesting his lead was the “steadiest” in any race with an incumbent “since at least 1944.” At the same time, experts say, Democrats would be remiss to place too much faith in those early numbers.

“Biden’s steady lead in the polls is not predictive of the final outcome,” American University Professor Allan Lichtman told Mediaite this week. Lichtman is known for developing 13 “keys” that successfully predict the outcome of most presidential elections, including President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

He added that the polls showed signs of hope for Democrats, but were far from conclusive. “Early polls have no predictive value. However, the polls do show that, as of now, potential voters are rejecting Trump’s response to the pandemic and that he has not been able to expand a base that has remained mired in the low 40-percent range.”

For Democrats still scarred by the memory of polling that showed Hillary Clinton prevailing in the 2016 election, there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of polling in 2020. The New York Times noted Tuesday that many polls “suffer from the same methodological issues that were partly or even largely responsible for the miss four years ago, despite many opportunities to improve,” while adding, “many of the major causes of error in 2016 seem somewhat less acute.”

The Times’ assessment acknowledged that there are fewer undecided voters in 2020 — pollsters assumed that more of them would favor Clinton in 2016 — but failed to note that some voters, particularly minority voters, did not show up to support Clinton to the degree pollsters anticipated.

As a result, most polls overestimated Clinton’s share of the vote. Monmouth, the least accurate pollster, projected Clinton would win by six percentage points in its final survey of the election. NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, which conducted a survey together, and Reuters/Ipsos tied for second-least accurate, each predicting Clinton would win by five points. Ultimately, Clinton won the popular vote by just 2.1 points, with 48 percent of the vote to 45.9 percent for Trump. (IBD/TIPP Tracking turned out to be the most accurate pollster, predicting that Clinton would win by one point.)

“The national polls predicted right to the end that Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote by a couple of points, and she did,” Brad Bannon, a Democratic pollster, told Mediaite. “The national media polls were accurate but the polls in the battleground states that were conducted by local colleges, newspapers and TV stations were infrequent and often inaccurate.”

Bannon, the president of Bannon Communications, a polling and consulting firm in Washington, D.C. said he would like to see the media this year focus more on the battleground states that decided the election in 2016 and will decide it again in 2020. “With the electoral college as the deciding factor, I hope that national media groups will do more polling in the battleground states this year and not leave it to the locals, like they did last time.”

He also said Biden is looking for a running-mate who would appeal to the voters who failed to show up for Clinton in 2016, and that California Sen. Kamala Harris is a top candidate. “A big problem for Clinton in 2016 was a decline in black turnout in the battleground states. Nationally, black turnout dropped by five percent from 2012, according to the U.S. Census. For that reason, Biden will have a black, female running mate. Harris is the leader, but there are a few other good possibilities.”

The process of selecting a vice president represents a balancing act for Biden and other presidential candidates whose running-mates inevitably appeal to one group of voters while dampening enthusiasm among others. While winning back some of the core Democratic constituencies Clinton failed to motivate enough to show up, Biden will have to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters in the key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Those two goals will not mesh easily.

Observers suggest pollsters are no more prepared to account for all of the variables than they were in 2016, but that Biden’s best opportunity to win may be a scenario in which Trump manages to repel swing voters on his own.

“Any comparison with 2016 is misleading,” Lichtman said. “Trump was the challenger in 2016. Now he is the incumbent, and the election will largely be a referendum on his presidency.”

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