Can We Believe the Polls?
Author: Greg Valliere
August 18, 2020
MOTION SICKNESS: Time for Dramamine — is Joe Biden ahead by 12 points or 4? CNN says the latter, the Washington Post says the former. The polls are still another wild card in this crazy year, which has Donald Trump praising CNN’s poll and criticizing Fox, which shows him trailing by 7 points.
THERE ARE NUMEROUS VARIABLES that make the elite polls different from each other — how many respondents are definitely planning to vote? How many are “leaners?” Who’s “persuadable?” How many respondents are Republicans? How many are Democrats? When were the polls taken — changes in the news cycle (such as concern over the post office) can change poll results literally overnight.
RATHER THAN look at the dizzying differences in methodology, we simply recommend the Real Clear Politics aggregate of all polls. It shows Biden ahead by 7.7 points this morning, which feels about right — but even this number could be off by a point or two, so we pay the most attention to the direction of this number.
WHAT THE DIRECTION SHOWS is that the race has tightened a bit, but we’re not aware of any serious political analyst who thought Biden was really ahead by 14 or 15 points, which some polls showed in July.
FOR INVESTORS, IT’S PROBABLY NOT WORTH spending a lot of time on the polls until a few days after the conventions; the GOP convention ends on Aug. 27. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Biden add a decent “bump” — maybe two or three points — after the Democrats’ convention, which got off to a solid start last night.
BUT TRUMP AND HIS ALLIES will have a field day next week, blasting Biden’s agenda, which has veered sharply to the left. Advocating massive tax increases has never been a winning formula, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see a bump for Trump by Labor Day.
BIDEN NEEDS A 6 OR 7 POINT LEAD THIS FALL: Three or four points of his lead could come just from California and New York, where he will win landslides. And most polltakers have at least a 3% margin of error. And some respondents may be reluctant to say they’re voting for Trump. So if Biden’s lead slips to 4 or 5 points this fall in the aggregate of all polls, he could be in trouble — especially if “battleground” states tighten further.
ONE THING IS CERTAIN: This is an uber-volatile political year — so volatile that Charlie Cook, the country’s leading handicapper, has shifted South Carolina’s Senate race to simply “leaning” to Lindsey Graham; it’s no longer a safe seat for the GOP in this very conservative state. If Lindsey Graham is vulnerable in South Carolina, anything can happen in November.
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