- Early presidential polling is a poor predictor of final results.
- In 2016 the election was decided in the final two weeks of the campaign.
- Biden has not been subject to the stress and criticism of a campaign.
- Democratic policies are more radical than the electorate.
The American presidential election is over four months away, several lifetimes in politics, yet the temptation to cite contemporary polling and suggest that this time Joe Biden’s lead may mean victory appears to be irresistible.
Trump’s defeat has become a ruling passion for many Democrats but the last election is a glaring example of the danger of letting emotions color analysis. “The triumph of hope over experience” is what Oscar Wilde would have called it.
Reasons to withhold judgement are many, general and specific.
Early polling is unreliable as a guide to final voting and many people do not engage with politics until after the summer vacations. The intensity of the base participation now does not give a good picture of the involvement of the overall electorate.
Former Vice-President Biden has not campaigned at all, his policies are undefined and running mate unchosen. His absence from the contest means that President Trump, whose policies and team are well known, will remain in the unremittingly negative spotlight of the media. Biden’s reticence is a conscious choice by his campaign staff.
The civil turmoil in many cities in the past month may well have an effect on the election quite different than the immediate impact portrayed in surveys when it intersects with the policies and parties of the candidates.
Let’s start with polling
Polls in the summer normally use lists of voting age adults or registered voters. These tend to be younger and more liberal than the likely voter screens employed by pollsters in the fall. Having an opinion in July, it turns out, is not a good predictor of showing up at the booth in November. Actual voters are older and more conservative.
Current national polls in the RealClearPolitics average give Biden an 8.8% edge. On July 4, 2016 Clinton led Trump in the same average by 4.6%. Clinton led throughout the campaign except for a brief three day run in late July. In early August her advantage was 7.7% and as late as mid-October it was 7.1%. Her final poll margin was 3.2% and she won the popular vote by 2.1%.
There is a demonstrated ‘shy voter’ problem for polls. Some voters are reluctant to admit, even or perhaps especially to pollsters, that they intend to vote for Trump, claiming in 2016 to be uncommitted or for Clinton. A percentage of the late switch of undecided voters to Trump were these ostensibly neutral observers.
The United States is a republic. Government is representative not direct. The overall vote of the nation does not elect the president. The popular vote of the individual states does through the Electoral College, an institution designed in the Constitution.
In most of US history the popular vote victor has been the same as the Electoral College winner. However, in this century two of the five elections have been won by the minority candidate.
It does not matter if one candidate amasses huge pluralities in particular states, as happened for Clinton in New York and California in 2016, if she loses the electoral votes in the mid-West and the South.
States polls are indispensable to rating a presidential election. But individual states tend to be polled less frequently and less accurately than the large countrywide polls conducted by national media and academia.
In the four most crucial states this year, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, all won by Trump with small margins the comparison to 2016 is useful.
Biden leads Wisconsin by 6.5%, on July 24 in 2016 Clinton’s lead was 5.5%. The final poll had Clinton ahead by 6.5%, Trump won the state by 0.7%.
In Michigan Biden is up 7.5%, on July 18 last election Clinton led by 3.7%. Final statistics had Clinton in front by 3.4%, Trump won by 0.3%.
For Pennsylvania Biden is in charge by 7%. In 2016 there were few polls until August and on the 10th Clinton was dominating by 8.7%. The last survey average had her up 1.9%, Trump won by 0.7%.
Finally there is Florida where Biden leads by 6.4%. At this point in 2016 Clinton was ahead 3%. The final poll had Trump up by 0.2% he won by 1.2%.
In the two states where the polls tightened, Florida and Pennsylvania, it happened within the last two weeks before the November 8 election. On October 22 in Florida Clinton still led by 4%. Four days later it was down to 1.6% and from then to the vote the state was essentially tried.
In Pennsylvania the switch was even later. On November 1 just a week before the election Clinton was ahead 6%.
Whether the mistakes made by the national media in ignoring these states in polling and analysis will be corrected this time is open to question. So far at least it seems the coverage has not strayed from its Washington and coastal obsessions.
In one very important sense the campaign has not started. Biden is not participating. He has held one news conference in three months, filmed a fund raiser with President Obama and has made occasional video statements. The fiction that he is keeping safe from Covid because of his age is extremely thin. He is 77, President Trump is 74.
While this tactic is designed to extract maximum advantage from Trump’s negative media coverage, it risks making Biden appear unengaged and fearful.
The Biden campaign has agreed to three debates. Try as they may the Biden campaign will not be able to ignore or to face down without proof, the question of their candidate’s mental acuity, his capacity and ability to be president. The longer he remains uninvolved and in hiding, the more meaningful the doubts become and the less time to recover from any mistakes or to create an alternative narrative or even choose a different candidate should Biden falter dramatically.
It is certain that the Trump campaign will be not be shy in exploiting this advantage.
Democratic policies and the African American vote
Despite their dominance in cities and on the coasts Democrats have a demographic weakness in many mid-Western states. In order to win they need high participation rates and huge pluralities in the African-American vote. If their totals falls much below 85% it is almost impossible to succeed in a close election.
The Trump administration sentencing reform bill passed last year, in addition to its legal merits, was an effort to address Republican weakness in that vote. It will be presented in contrast to Biden’s past hardline attitudes on crime and punishment and perhaps that of one of his potential vice-president choices, Kamala Harris, former Attorney General of California.
The riots in many American cities in the spring and summer and sharply rising crime are another opportunity for Republicans and the Trump campaign to make inroads in the African-American vote.
Civil unrest and crime are a problem almost exclusively of Democratic controlled cities. Minneapolis where the killing of George Floyd instigated a wave of protests, riots and looting in many cities, is a complete Democratic entity from the police chief though the city council, mayor and governor. In the 19 American cities with the highest crime rates 18 are controlled by Democrats, many for a generation. One is run by an independent.
The defund police movement is entirely a Democratic idea and policy. While it is offered as a cure for alleged police racism its result has been increased crime and deaths in urban areas, and the primary victims are African-American. It is foolish and condescending to think the residents of those cities will not notice.
It will be relatively easy for Republican political action committees and the Trump campaign to tag the Democrats and Biden with these failures of urban policy.
What must be remembered is that the Republicans do not have to win the African-American vote or even come close. All that is necessary to doom Democratic chances is to swing 5% or 10% to Trump.
Working and middle class voters and Wall Street
Biden will be presented to Americans as a reassuring moderate but the party lined up behind him is not.
From tax and environmental policy to the gender wars and immigration Democrats have embraced the most radical elements of their base. They have ceased being the party of working and middle class values and have become the party of academia and progressive urbanites.
In the states Biden needs to win the voters most likely to be alienated by the extremism of Democratic positions are precisely the ones he must have for victory. These are the voters who put Trump over the top in 2016. In the four years since Democrats have moved even further left. The examples of national Democratic politicians endorsing base pleasing radical policies are nearly endless and will be used by the Republicans to tie these ideas to Biden.
The candidate himself endorsed the so-called Green New Deal which as a non-binding resolution in the Senate failed 57 to 0 with most Democrats voting present. Clearly the Democrats are aware of the political danger from their base.
Playing the base against the center
Traditional presidential campaigns cater to their base in the primaries and then slant back to the political center for the general election.
This year that strategy for the Democrats has two problems. First the positions and policies adopted by the party are far more extreme than have ever been seen before in American politics. If you espouse open borders and ending fossil fuels in May is very difficult to elide that in October.
Second the shock troops of the Democratic Party, the energized crowds of protestors and radicals in the streets will not permit, indeed they abhor moderation. An ostensibly moderate candidate perched on a pyramid of radical supporters is a most unstable political structure.
Wall Street and Middle America will take note. The tumultuous spring and summer has left very little ground for compromise. Do most Americans support erasing the Revolutionary founders of the Republic from history and admiration? Does Wall Street want Elizabeth Warren in charge of corporate regulation and the SEC?
These questions will surely be used by the Republicans against Biden and the Democrats. The Trump campaign will continually remind voters that Biden, whatever his middle class roots, represents a party far gone in extremism.
Waiting for the fall
By several important parameters the campaign has barely begun. Surveys will inevitably tighten as the general electorate begins to pay attention to the campaign and the unavoidable choice between two candidates.
President Trump has been in the public glare for five years. It will be next to impossible for the Biden campaign to find new avenues for attack and criticism.
Almost the opposite is true for the Democratic candidate and the party. Very little about Biden’s political record, his myriad malapropisms, his mental capacity or his other foibles has been subject to public scrutiny. The longer he remains in his basement the more concentrated will be the attack, the more difficult to deflect and the closer to the election will be the voter impact.
Democratic radical associations and policies have been on full display in the civil unrest of the spring and summer. They will receive a full measure of Republican attention in the campaign to come.
Summer polls are one thing the fall election is another.
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