The NY Times’ election analysis whizzes at “538” published poll findings the other day that have caused understandable consternation among Democrats. The polls, taken in 6 key battleground states, show that Trump is highly competitive with his prospective Democratic opponents. In the three most critical states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, Trump narrowly trails Biden but beats Elizabeth Warren. The Dems must absolutely win all three of these three states, unless they pull off an even more difficult win in Florida or North Carolina. The Times’ Nate Cohn observes that though it may seem early, polls at this stage of presidential campaigns have been remarkably predictive of the actual results a year later.
Of particular note among Democrats worried about their party’s leftward drift is the finding that about 6% of voters who would go for Biden over Trump would instead prefer Trump over Warren. That is a big, unaffordable chunk of potential support to lose in a probably close election. Most of these Biden to Trump switchers, when asked why, gave variations on the idea that Warren is too far left.
Yikes! Can it be that the most unfit, unpopular and dangerous president in our history is on track to win re-election because the party is abandoning the political center, where the critical swing voters reside? This is the worry expressed most alarmingly by Jonathan Chait but also in different ways by thoughtful analysts like David Leonhardt and John Cassidy.
But wait! Another reputable poll, conducted about the same time as the Times’s, found all three leading Dems—Biden, Sanders and Warren—leading Trump nationwide by around 15 points. Of course, we all know that the election is decided in the electoral college, not by the national popular vote, so you might be inclined to take the Times’s battleground states polls more seriously. But the unavoidable conclusion is that one or both of these polls have to be significantly off: there is no way that the three critical battleground states are more pro-Trump than the rest of the country by a whopping 15+ percentage points. (In 2016 the difference was around 3 points.)
There’s more: a poll of Michigan voters found all three top Democrats beating Trump decisively. Sanders—the leftiest of the three—crushes Trump 57-43%. Biden wins by 56-44% and Warren bests Trump 54-46%. Warren, who’s losing by 4 points in the Times Michigan poll, is here winning by 8. That’s quite a swing.
So, the only confident conclusion to be drawn from this batch of polls is that no confident conclusion can be drawn. The alarm over the 538 findings is premature. We’ll have to see how the campaign develops. And we’ll have to see more polls.