Political polls are like potato chips or cotton candy, exciting in the moment then gone. They are momentarily interesting, often no lasting value or flavor. Predicting elections from polls is worse, like predicting sunrise from a handful of shooting stars – hardly accurate. Still, looking backwards at data can be instructive. Seeing where we were, helps us to see where we are.
Current polls on President Trump’s chances of winning the White House in 2020 have Democrats excited and Republicans concerned. Both parties should take a breath. The picture is more complicated. Media report Joe Biden is “opening up an 8-point advantage nationally against Trump” – but what does that mean?
Political observers are working overtime to tell us. Change Research has Biden up 48 to 41, Whitman Insight Strategies puts Biden ahead 53 to 43, and Zogby favors him 53 to 40, even as the Kaiser Family Foundation finds just a two-point gap, 43 to 41.
So, what gives? Do the numbers mean anything? Of course, an argument can be made for any position. Some say the President’s recent handling of COVID-19, support for police and use of the National Guard, plus comments on race relations cost him support. Others say polls are faulty, weighted, samples unrepresentative, supporters chilled – until they vote.
How can we know – if we choose to care – what these polls mean? One way is to look back in time. So, here is a look at polling in June 2016, this exact time slot, as Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton seemed unbeatable, began running away with the race.
The Ipsos/Reuters poll of June 20 put Clinton up 14 points, 47 to 33. ABC News gave Clinton a 12-point lead on Trump, 51 to 39. Pew Research, non-partisan standout, placed Clinton up by nine, 51 to 42 in June 2016. American Research Group had Clinton ahead by nine points, 50 to 41, while NBC gave her an 8-point edge, 49 to 40, and Fox had Trump trailing by six, 44 to 38. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationwide_opinion_polling_for_the_2016_United_States_presidential_election.
With or without the influence of Bernie Sanders, Clinton was supposed to trounce Trump. She would win handily. In 2016, as in 2020, Sanders followers were left leaning, not impressed by the Democrat nominee, threatened to stay home, go third-party, or vote Trump, which many did.
Of course, times change, and so do those being polled. One could argue that Trump’s record helps or hurts, although strong indications are his economic record could be decisive.
Interestingly, Biden is stumbling with minority voters, even hunkered down against COVID-19. Recent interviews suggest arrogance, and disconnection with Black and Hispanic voters. In one June poll, Trump shocked Democrats by surging with Black Americans. On June 5, the Rasmussen poll showed “despite the left’s recent efforts to paint Trump as a racist and blame him for police brutality and the riots … approval for President Trump amongst likely black voters is now over 40 percent.”
By reference to 2016, this is remarkable – as “Trump received eight percent of the African American vote in 2016.” Nor is this support – due to strong economic and criminal justice reform – an outlier. “In August 2019, black voter approval for Trump stood at 26 percent.”
Even sceptics have taken notice, observing “the increase of 14 points from a year ago suggests that Trump’s support from within the black community is increasing, despite the best efforts of the Democrats and the media to paint him as a racist,” adding “with the economy starting to recover, that approval is bound to increase. See https://pjmedia.com/election/matt-margolis/2020/06/05/rasmussen-black-voter-approval-for-trump-has-surged-to-over-40-percent-n499859.
Add another odd data point – another potato chip or shooting star. A late May report shows “Trump’s approval rating among Hispanic-Americans stands at 44 percent,” according to a Hill-Harris poll, “a notable jump over the 28 percent of Latinos who voted for him in the 2016 presidential contest.” See, https://nypost.com/2020/05/30/why-so-many-latino-voters-are-flocking-to-trumps-gop/.
More revealing, a mid-June report shows Trump with the jump on Biden among Hispanics, relative to where Hillary Clinton was at this point. Despite his putative national lead, even liberals concede “Trump is outperforming where he was four years ago with a key part of the Democratic coalition: Hispanics,” and “this could have implications …”
Where Clinton had a 61 to 23 percent margin over Trump among Hispanics in 2016, Biden is hanging onto a 58 to 33 margin in an aggregate of 15 polls. As liberals note, “Biden’s margin of about 25 points is more than 10 points lower than Clinton’s,” and “extends back to the Democratic primary,” where Biden got only 32 percent of Hispanics.
The real test is ahead, since Biden is still resting in his corner and Trump continues to wrestle COVID-19, reopening, race riots, China, and a sense of national unease.
That said, the polls are interesting. Overall, they tell us five things. First, Trump is doing as well against Biden as Clinton in 2016 – or better – at the same point in the race. Second, Trump is gaining among Black Americans, which could be a game-changer. Third, Trump is outperforming among Hispanic Americans, a tectonic shift. Fourth, Trump continues to break the mold, upending expectations of pundits, politicians, liberal critics, anti-Trump Republicans, and average Americans.
Finally, since COVID-19 and race-related unrest will not go on forever, several hidden advantages may be at work. Among these, Americans of all races and creeds know Trump helped them economically. What he did was unprecedented. They know he favors criminal justice reform – as he signed the bill, as well as “law and order.” He pulled no punches to restore peace, putting out fires and ending Antifa’s activities. That comforts urban and suburban voters.
Finally, after years of mealy-mouth political talk, broken promises, and plastic politicians, Trump remains – whether you like or hate him – inherently authentic. He is an unapologetic fighter, defender of free speech, free exercise of religion, freedom to assemble, free markets, the right to keep and bear arms, a strong national defense, secure borders, a constitutionally faithful judiciary. For many – no matter what the polls say – that will be enough in November.
In all events, remember polls are worth what you pay for them – or less. Like potato chips, cotton candy, and shooting stars, they are captivating, then gone. They may tell us something – or nothing. What is interesting is this: The current batch give Biden no more hope than others gave Clinton four years ago. And Trump now has accomplishments to his name. Stay tuned.