Can We Trust the Polls This Time?

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S1: Jim Newell writes about politics for Slate, and right now that job, it can feel a little like an endurance test.

S2: I just I’m just like looking it’s, what, two months until the election? A little less than two months. I just need to get to the election. We somehow some way I need to summon the will.

S3: Yeah, that’s a really familiar feeling to me. I mean, how long have you covered Washington now? Thirteen years. Do you remember when talking about politics was fun? Yeah, vaguely. I remember my first job.

S2: I was I blogged for Wonkette back in 07, 08. And I would actually like they’re actually weakside. I would be mad when the weekend came because I was having so much fun.

S1: What’s not fun is trying to game out the next few weeks and how they’ll play with voters. We all know what happened last time we tried to predict who would be president in October of twenty sixteen, seven in 10 voters said they thought Hillary Clinton would be moving into the White House. Among Clinton supporters, 93 percent expected her to win.

S4: A lot of listeners are carrying their anxiety from 2016 into this race. Can you just sort of stack up where we are now versus where we were around this time in 2016?

S2: Sure. Let me where are we? What day was what day is it today? Tuesday, September 8th. Yeah. Yeah. Clinton was ahead by three. It looks like this time four years ago, we’re right in the middle of one of these waves where Trump had caught her and then it just started tightening up again.

S1: Hear what Jim said there. Trump caught her. That’s what the polls looked like four years ago, like the two candidates playing tag so Clinton could take a pretty noticeable lead, maybe four or five points, but Trump would catch her.

S2: Clinton would take another lead. Trump would catch her early trump or catch her.

S3: This time around, though, Trump has never come anywhere close to catching bided. His lead will vary from five or six at one point 10 or 11. Trump has never really come within breathing distance of catching Biden so far today on the show, with the presidential race in its final few weeks. We talk about what the data shows and whether you can trust it. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: With so many national polls showing Biden in the lead, politicos know what you’re thinking, but you’ve been to this rodeo before. So all summer long, pollsters have been laying out their case. One wrote an article in The Atlantic titled Believe the Polls. This time, Charlie Cook over at Cook Political Report’s blogged, Many are afraid to say it, but this is not a close race. And part of the reason these folks are so confident is that in the last few years, they’ve changed the way they do their work. They’ve started making sure their samples include people that in the past they assumed might not vote noncollege educated white people. Many of these people turned out not to be nonvoters but Trump voters in 2016.

S2: This whole split between college educated whites and non college whites, that was a pretty new development for 2016 to have this be such I mean, a massive gap between these two demographics that they hadn’t really. Thought to wait by education, all their polls, but most of the good pollsters are now waiting by education in an attempt to just capture. Those who are less likely to respond, I mean, that’s I think that’s still maybe a little bit of a problem, but pollsters are aware of it where the people who are most likely to respond are higher educated, higher income. I do not know why wealthier people like to talk to pollsters on the phone more, but it’s a real thing. Another reason for the big pulling miss in twenty sixteen where they did miss was just that late breakers win for Trump so decisively, people who are undecided. Yeah. You know, if you thought about people who hadn’t made a decision in 2016, a lot of them just loathed Hillary Clinton, loathed Donald Trump or putting off making a decision for as long as possible. And then at the end, they broke for Trump. It doesn’t seem like one Biden isn’t as loathed by the opposition as as Clinton was, fairly or not, but also in some of these polls of people who don’t like either Biden or Trump. Biden has been doing pretty well.

S4: What do we know about how Biden is doing in this demographic that broke for Trump, these white, non college educated folks? Because the argument for Biden was always he’ll connect with those people better.

S2: I mean, Trump is still has huge margins among white non college voters. But Biden’s position is a little better relative to Clinton’s. I mean, he’s doing better with white voters across the board. I mean, that’s really, to me, an interesting story of what’s going on and what kind of coalition Biden is putting together. He’s not just strictly recreating the the Obama coalition, which was really strong margins and turnout from voters of color, really strong margins and turnout from younger voters. I mean, this is one where it’s it’s it’s a little wider than either of those. Obama white voters with a college degree were not a strong demographic, especially in 2012.

S1: This year, there’s another demographic that seems to be breaking for Biden.

S2: Seniors, older voters were Trump’s best age demographic. In twenty sixteen, he won them by about 10 points or so. This time, Biden’s been leading them, among them by 12 points in some polls, not all of them, but Biden. We have a chance to be the first Democrat since Al Gore to have won senior voters. And, you know, that’s real trouble for Trump. If that actually materializes, he won’t really have anywhere else to hide, given his deficits among so many other groups. And it really could have a big effect when you look at pretty much all of the swing states, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, they all have higher than average proportions of older voters as part of their electorate. So it’s it’s it’s a real softness for Trump right now.

S1: There are other things complicating the polls for Trump this year. There isn’t a strong third party candidate that could be in a tight race. Give the president an advantage. And while undecideds broke for Trump last time, there just aren’t that many of them. This year, they make up five to 10 percent of the electorate rather than the 20 percent they did back in 2016. So Trump is trying to make inroads with other demographics, surprising demographics relative to twenty sixteen.

S2: He does seem to be showing a little bit better performance among black and Hispanic voters, specifically black and Hispanic men. But but this is we’re talking you know, it’s not like he’s winning. He’s going from like among black voters like five to eight or nine percent or something. And Hispanic voters, you know, twenty eight to thirty two percent or something like that. It’s not going to deliver him the election. But it is notable that his position is decaying worse than it was in twenty sixteen. But otherwise his real base, I mean he could clip a couple of Dem Democratic margins here, there. But the real base is still noncollege educated white voters. And the one thing he has going for them is that even with all the support he got from that demographic in twenty sixteen, they were still a pretty untapped group. I mean, there are still a ton of non college whites in a lot of swing states who do not have not historically turned out to vote. And that’s where his path to victory is. If he can really register a lot more of those voters than we’ve seen before. That seems to be his best opportunity. I’m not saying it’s a great one. I mean, you can always say, you know, if he can register all these low propensity to vote voters. But, you know, there are also low propensity to vote in the past. So you can’t always you can’t just double that overnight.

S1: Part of what makes polling more interesting to watch now is that after Labor Day, that’s when state data begins to improve, which is important in a country where some states matter more than others in Florida. A poll this week seems to show the race tightening with Trump and Biden tied. But Arizona looks like it’s headed in a different direction.

S2: Arizona is four years ago, it was considered kind of a a reach for the Clinton campaign or like a special little treat that if you want to visit it, then she then she could go for it so long as she had the rest locked down. Instead, she visited without having the rest locked down. So that was a bit of a problem. But polling averages have had Arizona. Biden’s been up just about every poll. It’s a combination there of just the electorate becoming another four points more Hispanic in its composition and also some suburban decay for Trump, which you seeing everywhere. So I think it’s going to be pretty close with Biden. You would have to call him the favorite there, just going by all the the polling that we’re seeing.

S4: Well, Trump pulled a bunch of ads in Arizona recently, and it was seen as a sign that maybe they were giving up on the state to some extent. But then that means you’re relying on Midwestern states, which are pretty newly red if you’re talking about Michigan, Wisconsin. So it seems like a bit of a risky strategy.

S2: Yeah, I don’t think he’s I don’t think he’s giving up in Arizona. They were pulling ads from a lot of places around the conventions. And there was a big New York Times story last night. This was partly related to how they’ve blown eight hundred million dollars already and are are somehow having to tighten their belts a little bit. But I mean, I think it’ll be back up on the air in Arizona because if they if they lose Arizona, then they really they have to get. Let me make sure I Mathieu’s but it really does put all the stress on holding Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin when it. They’re not in a great position in in any of those states right now, and they’ll still have to protect Florida, too, because if they lose Florida, Arizona, the election’s over.

S4: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s worth talking about those states specifically just Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, because they’re states where there were such thin margins in twenty sixteen. I mean, Trump won Michigan in Pennsylvania by less than a percentage point. And the margin of error for a poll is like three percent. So it just makes me wonder, like, how much can we know ahead of time? How much faith should we put in these polls even when they’re breaking it down locally, which is so important in our particular system?

S2: I think, you know, if it’s plus three states, Biden plus three in any of those states on Election Day, I mean, who knows anything could happen that night. Polls are sometimes, you know, average polling misses or sometimes two or three or four points. And then it depends on which direction it goes. I think one thing that’s a little different is those states really didn’t have I’m not entirely sure Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania did not really have strong beelined voting apparatus in twenty sixteen. It was mostly in-person right around Election Day. And now they’re trying to they’ve had passed law changes to to allow for a lot more mail and voting, both even before the pandemic. They’re trying to do this.

S4: What does that functionally mean for the election? Does it mean that processing the votes will take more time or something else?

S2: Well, it will take more time because in Pennsylvania, they can’t start counting ballots, any ballots or turn in at any point until polls close. So I’m not the election law guy here. You know, I don’t know what the rationale for that is, but it means that if we have an election coming down to Pennsylvania, say Democrats have lost Florida and Arizona and they’ve won Wisconsin and Michigan, it’s all coming down to Pennsylvania then. That could be a nightmare and you really could be just having to wait for the count and then also, you know, there could be lawsuits over provisional ballots and everything. And that sounds a little terrifying, but it is a little terrifying.

S4: I mean, it just because are new systems, because this is the opportunity to sort of kick the tires there.

S2: New systems and states just have not with coronavirus. How to handle this much mail before. And now, you know, mail in ballots themselves are highly politicized and you have all state officials from each party trying to make it easier to vote by mail or harder to vote by mail. And, you know, all these little mechanics, you know, I just really hope that there aren’t too many ballots thrown away because they were not properly done or they were spoiled or something. I just really hope that how Americans voted in the election is captured in the election results. I mean, that’s the stuff that makes me worry.

S4: And of course, we’re talking about these individual states because in our particular system, individual states are really important. We have an electoral college. And so where you’re voting really matters because you’re voting for representation to do the actual vote. And I was struck. By the fact that there was reporting this weekend that allies of President Trump, they think there’s virtually no chance that he’ll win the popular vote, he lost the popular vote last time, too. But that’s a striking admission to me and also makes me wonder how much we can say in advance about who is ahead and who isn’t, because so much comes down to this ancient system of democracy.

S2: Right. There was a really striking a couple of poll analyst, Nate Silver, someone else last week were showing. Biden’s percentage of winning the Electoral College, depending on his popular vote margin and even up by a few points, say Biden won the popular vote by three points. Trump’s was a really good chance of winning the Electoral College that way. I mean, I think up to the sort of ways being handicapped is up to about a five point BITD win, you know, Trump could actually win the Electoral College. I don’t know. There are a lot of ways there are a lot of ways to describe the sort of system where you can win a popular vote for a presidency by five points and still lose the presidency. I am not quite sure what the exact word for it is, but I think I know it’s something I would think a bit about.

S4: I keep thinking about the polling from 2016 and the fact that now we’re trying to correct for what went wrong there by sampling more noncollege educated whites, and I think about it in terms of we’re always like fighting the last battle. And it just makes me wonder, like who are leaving out this time, like all these polls saying whatever they’re saying, who are they not seeing? You know, reading an article this weekend where they were talking about getting out the vote in Wisconsin and translating what happened in Kenosha to political power and how a lot of people just felt like we watched Trump win last time and it’s probably just going to happen again. And why even register? And I just thought, oh, I don’t know if that reflects anything real. We won’t know until November. But it did make me think, like, who are we not seeing in these polls?

S2: The the boat vote. The voter. Sorry. Well, a serious question. I go straight to the boat vote. My husband was like, I hope your show is about the voters. I think it shows the everyday voters, the voters until Election Day, the voter about voter voters should get the parades there. Just make sure your boat doesn’t sing. I think that’s a really good point about who we’re missing. And naturally, I can’t say who it is because they’re missing, but that’s sort sort feeling of despair and that that feeling that people think even despite the polling, they’re really good for Biden, that Trump is just going to win. I think that’s really interesting. You know, even when Trump was down by like 10 or 11 at some points in the middle of this summer, I remember there’s a poll of. I think Pennsylvania, where Biden was leading the polls by 10, but then people are asked who they think will win the election and Trump was leading by 15 or something. And I think that if its people are so despairing that they’re not even registering to vote, that’s a big problem for for Biden. But I also think it can be kind of useful. I mean, I remember in twenty sixteen. Running around the sidewalk and screaming at strangers that Trump could win and you’re not paying attention enough, you know, and people just looked at me like, you know, one I’m calling the police. And two, like, no, of course, of course, Trump’s not going to win. You know, like, that can’t happen this time. I feel like it’s the opposite. And I think I could make sure that people actually do get out to vote.

S3: If you think Trump’s going to find some some magic trick here to try and steal this and that, make sure you’re not complacent. Oh, that was like a like pretty warm and fuzzy from you, Jim. Really? I think so. Like, get out there and do your duty, America. It’s, you know, like that Obama speech. It’s not working, but it’s the best we have. Well, I am I am an Obama like orator, so. General, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me. Jim Newell is Slate’s senior politics writer.

S1: And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewett and Alan Schwarz, thanks to Ray Suarez, who filled in for me during my summer vacation. If you want to see what I did on that summer vacation, just go to my Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll be back tomorrow with more. What next?