AUGUST 17, 2020
Two months ago, President Trump was so incensed by a CNN poll showing him trailing Joe Biden by 14 points that his campaign sent the cable outlet a cease-and-desist letter.
On Monday morning, Trump cited the very same poll as evidence that the 2020 campaign is closer than people think.
“Although, crazy CNN, as bad as they are — I guess it was a poll that I was 14 down and I picked up 10 in the last month,” Trump said on “Fox and Friends.” He added later, “That’s why my polls have gone up 10 or 12 points. I don’t believe there were ever there, by the way; I think they’re phony polls.”
The CNN poll issued over the weekend did indeed turn a head or two. After many polls, including from CNN, repeatedly showed Biden leading by as much as double-digits, it was the closest result from a high-quality, live-interviewer poll since April. And for a Democratic Party still twitchy about its unexpected 2016 loss, the panic button is constantly at-the-ready.
But even as the CNN poll showed a tightening race, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted on the same dates and released Monday painted a more static picture: Biden up by 12. A CBS News-YouGov poll conducted on approximately the same dates had Biden up 10. And polls this month from Monmouth University, Fox News and NPR-PBS-Marist College showed Biden leads of between seven and 11 points. Biden’s average lead of around eight points in the RealClearPolitics average is pretty much about where it has been for months.
So what gives?
There are some key differences between the CNN survey and the others released in August.
One is among men. While most recent polls have shown a tight race for the male vote — and The Post-ABC poll has Biden leading by eight points — CNN has Trump leading by 16 points there. The only recent high-quality poll showing Trump leading by near that much among men is Monmouth, which had the margin at 12.
The CNN poll also shows more GOP party unity, with Trump leading among registered Republicans by 92 points — compared with 79 points in The Post-ABC poll, 78 points in the Fox poll, 81 in the NPR-PBS poll, 85 in the CBS-YouGov poll, and 87 in the Monmouth poll.
CNN shows a more even split among independents than most any recent poll, with Trump trailing by just one point. The Post-ABC poll has Biden up 17 there, Monmouth has him up 19, and NPR-PBS has him up 16. The only comparable recent poll is CBS-YouGov, which actually had Biden trailing by five among independents — despite leading by 10 points overall.
And finally, the CNN poll shows a closer vote among non-White voters than any of these polls. Biden leads them by 32 points, compared with 45 points in The Post-ABC poll and the Monmouth poll, 45 in the Monmouth poll, 43 in the Fox poll and 36 in the NPR-PBS poll.
That last one is a key number. The tighter race among non-White voters isn’t just different from other polls; it’s also far different from the 2016 results. Exit polls then showed Hillary Clinton carrying non-White voters by 53 points, while a Pew Research Center survey of validated 2016 voters showed the non-White vote going for Clinton by 55. If Trump has truly shrunk that gap to 32, that would indeed be big news, but it’s not what we’re generally seeing in other polls.
That comparison to the Pew validated voter survey is instructive. Setting aside non-White votes and seniors, it shows much the same picture as the CNN poll — with a slightly larger gender gap. If Trump can recreate that race, a four-point deficit is indeed about what you’d expect, given he lost the popular vote in 2016 by two points.
It’s possible the CNN poll is on the leading edge of a shift in the race. But that’s a shift we haven’t seen in virtually any other high-quality polling — including one conducted the same dates, in The Post-ABC poll. The bad news is that polls the next couple of weeks may not shed a ton of light on which it is, given they’ll be colored by the back-to-back national party conventions.
It’s also possible that this is some statistical noise in what has been a remarkably constant race. CNN’s polling indeed has been more volatile than others, showing an 11-point Biden lead in April, a five-point lead in May, a 14-point lead in June and now a four-point lead in August.
As usual with Trump, though, the only real polls are the ones that are good for him — even when they’re the same polls.