SEPTEMBER 27, 2020
New polls released Sunday confirm it: Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a clear advantage over President Donald Trump heading into the first debate on Tuesday.
The New York Times/Siena College poll gives Biden a 49% to 41% lead over Trump among likely voters. The ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Biden ahead 54% to 44% among likely voters. (It’s a 6 point edge for Biden when Libertarian Jo Jorgensen and the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins are included.)
Biden may end up losing like Hillary Clinton (more on that in a minute), but Trump’s job is significantly harder this time around. While Trump trailed Clinton at this point, the race was simply much closer in 2016.
You can see this well in the ABC News/Washington Post poll taken just before that year’s first debate. Clinton was up by a mere 2 points in both a direct matchup with Trump and one that included the two prominent third party candidates.
The average of polls tells the same story. Today, Biden’s up by about 7 or 8 points nationally. Clinton was only up by about 2 points, or had about one-fourth the edge Biden has in the polls right now.
Biden being in a better position than Clinton has been a consistent story this election. It was true when I spoke about it in May, June, July, August and earlier this month, and when the Wall Street Journal’s Aaron Zitner pointed it out earlier this week.
Importantly, new state polls released Sunday indicate Biden’s well out in front in some key electoral battlegrounds as well. NBC News/Marist College polls put Biden up 52% to 44% in Michigan and 54% to 44% in Wisconsin. While the averages are a little tighter, Biden’s up by more than 6 points in both of those states. Clinton lost both states in 2016.
The race is within the margin of error in CBS News/YouGov polls of Georgia (Trump 47% to Biden 46%) and North Carolina (Biden 48% to Trump 46%). Those though represent considerable improvements over 2016 for the Democrats, as Clinton lost those states by 5 and 4 points respectively.
But it goes beyond just the margin. Look at Biden’s vote percentage. He’s at just a little bit north of 50% in the average of all the national polls. Clinton’s support was only in the low 40s before the debates. Even Trump, averaging around 43% in the polls, is getting a higher percentage than he was four years ago at this time.
There were a lot more undecided or third party voters at this point in the 2016 cycle. A little less than 20% of voters were undecided or going with a third party candidate. Today, it’s less than 10%.
This undecided/third party group of voters were a pool that Trump could attract to make up the deficit he had to Clinton.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened, according to the 2016 exit polls. Clinton won by 6 points among those voters who decided before the final month of the campaign. Trump only won in states totaling 270 electoral votes and came as close as he did in the popular vote because he beat Clinton by 8 points among those who made up their minds in the final month of the campaign.
Given that there are far fewer undecided/third party voters this time, the chance of that happening again is slimmer than in 2016.
Still, it is possible that Trump comes back. We can’t be sure what margin Biden needs to beat Trump by nationally in order to win a majority of electoral votes. History and statistical modeling this year indicate that Biden needs to win nationally by 5 points or more to feel pretty safe about winning in the Electoral College.
Biden’s ahead by only a few more points than that 5 point margin. While national polls are usually pretty accurate at the end of the campaign, they can miss by 3 points or more. (It happened as recently as 2012.)
Moreover, we still have to get through three debates. Debates don’t usually move the dial that much, but it’s completely conceivable that Biden’s national lead is slimmed a point or two by them.
The bottom line remains the same. Biden has been and continues to be ahead. That lead is sizable, but doesn’t guarantee anything.
What I wrote earlier this week continues to be true today: “Even if Biden maintains his current lead, past errors indicate Trump will still have a non-nominal chance to pull off the victory.”