Believe the Polls This Time
These aren’t Hillary Clinton’s numbers. Biden has a wide lead because the landscape has changed.
Recent polls could hardly be more reassuring for voters who want to be done with Donald Trump. “Biden Builds Largest Lead This Year,” a CNN headline declared. “Biden Hits 55%–41% Against Trump in Biggest National Poll Lead Yet,” reported The Daily Beast. “Republicans should be petrified by the polls,” a Washington Post opinion piece asserted. Yet the polls also frighten Democrats who, four years ago, got their hopes up amid favorable numbers for Hillary Clinton.
Noting reports that Joe Biden holds a healthy lead in Michigan—one of three Rust Belt states in which Trump narrowly upset Clinton—Representative Debbie Dingell told participants in a recent online Democratic campaign event, “I don’t believe these numbers.” And Dingell, who introduced herself at the event as “Debbie Downer,” has standing to dispute polls that look rosy for her party. In 2016, she’d warned me that the Clinton campaign was going badly in Macomb County—the suburban home of the white, working-class, Catholic voters whom my research decades earlier had labeled “Reagan Democrats.” Dingell’s fear that Clinton could lose Michigan was borne out.
But this moment is very different. To start, during the summer and fall of 2016, Clinton never had the kind of national poll lead that Biden now has. She led by an average of four points four months before the election and the same four points just before Election Day. This year, after Biden effectively clinched the nomination, he moved into an average six-point lead over Trump, which has grown to nearly 10 points after the death of George Floyd and the weeks of protests that have followed. The lingering apprehension among Democrats fails to recognize just how much the political landscape has changed since 2016. We are looking at different polls, a different America, and different campaigns with different leaders.
I am a pollster who works to get Democrats elected. Four years ago I, too, believed—based on public polling and information from the Clinton campaign itself—that our candidate was going to win. I still didn’t take victory for granted. I wanted to win down ballot so Democrats would make gains in the House and Senate. I wanted to close the campaign on economic issues that would create a mandate for change. Today, the numbers suggest that the electorate is ready to repudiate Trump and his agenda. Instead of living in fear that 2016 will repeat itself, Democrats should listen to what voters are saying and seize the opportunity to push for the most possible change.
The Clinton campaign’s worst blunder came in September 2016, when the candidate described “half of Trump’s supporters” as “deplorables” and walked right into the white working-class revolt against elites. Her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders had exposed a lack of enthusiasm for her in white working-class suburbs that Barack Obama had won. Her campaign hoped to make up for the lost votes with landslide wins among women, voters of color, and voters in big cities. White working-class voters noticed the lack of respect, and Trump ran up startling margins with them: He won these men by 48 points and women by 27, according to exit polls.
And the white working-class shift toward Trump is the biggest reason the national polls overestimated Clinton’s margin by two points and the state polls by much more. Mostly using exit polls from prior elections as their guide, pollsters—including me—had overestimated the number of four-year college graduates in the electorate. Getting that wrong mattered a lot in an election where the white working class was in revolt. Crucially, many pollsters, including me, have adjusted our assumptions about the makeup of the November 2020 electorate.
So one reason to trust my polls more now than in 2016 is this change: Four years ago, those without a four-year degree made up 48 percent of my survey respondents; today they account for 60 percent. Whites without a college degree were 33 percent of my surveys; today they are 43 percent. That is a huge change—an elixir against being deceived again. The pain of Trump’s victory and disastrous presidency has concentrated the minds of campaign staff and the polling profession in ways that give me confidence that Biden’s lead in the polls is real.
But much more important than all of that is the sustained, unwavering, and extremely well-documented opposition of the American people to every element of Donald Trump’s sexist, nativist, and racist vision. Indeed, the public’s deep aversion to Trumpism explains why Biden has such a poll lead.
The Women’s March, just one day after Trump’s inauguration, launched the revolt against Trump, and it has never paused. In congressional races in 2018, Democrats won white women with a four-year degree by 20 points; in the electoral-battleground states, Biden is now leading by 39 points, according to June’s New York Times/Siena College poll. While college-educated women are a big part of the suburban revolt against Trump, the shift among white unmarried women, who make up a fifth of the electorate, may prove more consequential. Democrats lost them by two points in both 2012 and 2016. According to my June battleground poll for Democracy Corps and the Center for Voter Information, Biden is winning them by 57 to 43 percent.
Much more devastating to Trump’s prospects is waning support from women who form a majority of the white working class. Without strong support from these voters, Trump cannot win. Right now, Biden is losing them by only seven points in my same battleground poll.
Trump’s raison d’être as a candidate and mission as president is to stop immigration. He promised a wall against Mexicans, imposed a Muslim ban, and has obstructed legal as well as illegal entry. Yet during Trump’s term, Americans have grown more pro-immigration. About half of Americans viewed “immigrants to the U.S.” favorably when Trump took office; now about 62 percent believe that immigrants benefit the country. And as Trump highlights the 200-plus miles of wall on the border with Mexico, polls have shown that Americans oppose it by big margins.
Finally, most Americans have strongly rejected Trump’s divisiveness, intolerance, and racism in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. While Trump claimed the mantle of a law-and-order president, two-thirds of the country supported Black Lives Matter, according to a June Pew poll. Two-thirds. A majority of white Americans now believe that George Floyd’s killing was “part of a broader pattern of excessive police violence toward African Americans.” It has left the president isolated, as have his tweets promoting his white nationalist supporters. This president has created a country that is committed to defending its values. Just not his values.
Trump has also left the Republican Party a diminished entity, as I argued in The Atlantic in March, that is shedding voters. If you want to understand how precarious Trump’s position is, look at the number of Americans who call themselves Republicans under his watch. The percentage who identify as Republican dropped from 39 percent when Trump took office to 36 percent before Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and has fallen to only 33 percent now, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
That has created quite a headwind for a president who makes every day a referendum on himself. For most of his presidency, only about 42 percent of Americans approved of how he was handling his job; about 52 percent disapproved. That 10-point spread was not far off the Democrats’ nine-point margin over the Republicans in the House midterm elections.
Recently, Trump’s average approval rating has slipped a bit to about 41 percent, while his disapproval rating has jumped to about 56 percent. That looks a lot like the 14-point margin for Biden over Trump in the most recent New York Times poll.
More and more, Trump looks as though he is holding a popgun when he promises to rouse his base and create the kind of late fervor that changed the 2016 election. Trump held election-eve rallies last year to support Republican gubernatorial candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana, and they lost. He called on his Tea Party followers to “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia. The small groups of armed people who turned up in state capitals were intimidating, but governors stood firm. Then Trump boasted that 1 million supporters wanted to attend his rally in Tulsa, but only 6,200 did, according to the fire marshal.
Right now, 67 percent of Republicans in a recent poll strongly approve of Trump, but that pales against the 91 percent of Democrats who strongly disapprove of him. Unless something radically changes, the anti-Trump voters will write history.
In the next four months, many things could put Biden’s current lead at risk. On occasion, between now and November, Biden will garble his words in an interview or make some public statement that many people will struggle to understand. He will surely sound out of touch or offend one group or another. Younger voters and Sanders primary voters do not appear to be rapturously excited about Biden. Calls for defunding the police reveal genuine fractures in the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, as states struggle to adapt their voting procedures to the pandemic, Republicans in state office will do nothing to guarantee Black and Hispanic Americans access to the polls. And the Russians who interfered in the 2016 election have a lot at stake in keeping Donald Trump as president.
Still, other factors give Democrats reason for optimism. The Biden campaign likely won’t repeat the mistakes of the Clinton campaign, which underestimated Democrats’ vulnerability in the supposed “blue wall” states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And while events could pose new challenges for Biden, the same is true for Trump.
Which scenario is more likely: that Biden will blurt out something in the next few months that alienates women voters whose support he needs, or that Trump will express support for white supremacists that alienates almost everyone? That the economy suddenly kicks into high gear after a few months, or that millions of people remain unemployed? That America gets the coronavirus under control, or that new outbreaks tear through state after state? The escalating number of infections and hospitalizations, as The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein recently pointed out, is wreaking havoc in the very suburban counties of Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and Texas that Trump needs to carry.
Even before the pandemic, the American political landscape had changed dramatically since Trump’s election, and not in ways that favor the incumbent. Biden’s big poll lead should not make Democrats complacent, but neither should members of my party shake their heads and think, Here it comes again. Rather, the current polls should persuade Democrats to work for the greatest possible rejection of a widely distrusted U.S. president and the political party that enables him.