What’s In a Poll?
Biden has opened up a major lead over the president in the newest round of polls. Biden is up 55-40% in some polls, his largest lead so far. In the latest Fox numbers, voters view Biden as more capable of leading the country through the coronavirus (51-34%), the economy (44-43%) and race relations (52-31%). None of these numbers have changed significantly in the last month, but none have gone in Trump’s favor either. The coming weeks will determine if this is an inflection point or the continuation of Trump’s decline.
But can we trust the polls? In an interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace Sunday, Trump denied that he was losing in the polls. When Wallace revealed the Fox polling numbers, the president called them “fake polls,” referring to the disparity of Democrat and Republican voters in some polls. Who’s being surveyed is an important factor; Biden’s lead is cut by a third among those surveyed who plan to vote in the election. The president also referenced the failure of pollsters in 2016 to predict the election. On the day of the election, not a single poll had Trump within 3 points of Clinton. Trump and many of his supporters have not forgotten that. Aggregate polling proved to be an inadequate measure of what would happen in the electoral college.
In the midst of all the confusion surrounding the coronavirus, polls and statistics are proving to be a shaky guide to what’s actually happening. They show social sentiment more than anything else, which is proving to be an unreliable guide to reality. The significant upshot from the latest round of data is that it’s getting to be extremely unpopular to support Trump publicly, but this too has an underside.
In 2016, one of the big surprises was how different the exit polls were from the way people actually voted. If anything, this is more true now than it was then. The social cost of being a Trump supporter, even in an anonymous survey, all but ensures that the data won't be accurate. There are some, and this number is impossible to know, who will vote for Trump and never tell anyone. In 2016, many in this group said they would vote for Biden when asked but voted for Trump at the ballot box. Polling cannot account for this group, and I wonder if it has grown since 2016.
The numbers among evangelicals bear out this phenomenon. A June Pew study found that 59% of Christians surveyed said they disapproved of the way Donald Trump is handling his job as president, but 55% of this same group said they would vote for him. Trump’s support is still strongest among evangelicals, 59% of whom approve of the President (down from 64% 6 months ago) but 82% of whom plan to vote for him (up from 77% in 2016).
This does not mean the President is right about the data, it means we simply do not know how people are going to vote when the time comes. That’s as true in the President’s internal polls as it is in the media’s polls. This data is useful, but it depends on what you take away from it. Here’s what might be the most interesting stat in the Fox data, when asked whether or not they think Trump will win in 2020 people were split 50/50: 45% said yes, 45% said no, 10% said they didn’t know.
Actions, Plans, and Action Plans
What are the candidates actually doing? This is the most important factor in the final hundred days leading up to the election. You don’t have to look at polling data to understand that the President has lost support in the last few months. Last week he demoted his 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale back down to digital operations director in favor of Bill Stepien a top advisor in 2016. Jason Miller has rejoined the campaign as has Michael Glassner, and Jared Kushner appears to be at the helm.
In terms of strategy, several Republicans have called for the president to return to the issues that won him the White House in 2016. Victor Davis Hanson argues that Trump needs to defend America against the anti-American mobs of the left, put pressure on China, and stand in the gap between the American working class and liberal elites. This means staying on message. Aaron Blake lists four factors that will help the president in November; an opening on the Supreme Court, undecided voters, Biden’s gaffs, and the way he handled the coronavirus. Trump won in 2016 because of his vision to bring jobs back to America, build a great economy, regulate immigration, and stop the tide of political correctness and government bureaucracy.
One of the president’s central strategies is to get back to normal. He wants to hold rallies, he’s holding fundraisers, and he’s ready to be out among the people again. He’s got to get the economy moving in the right direction. He’s got to remind his base of what he’s endured from the press and the establishment and assure them he still has the power to change Washington.
Biden’s strategy could not be more different. He gives very few interviews, rarely leaves his house, and has sought to build a loose coalition between the center and far left. While Democrats may be warming to Biden’s basement strategy, the clock is ticking on how long isolation will help the former VP. Chris Wallace gave the president a tough interview and he responded well to it. Voters are beginning to wonder if Biden is ever going to be asked a tough question? The strategy to let Trump beat Trump may be promising, but it won’t work if the country re-opens and Biden can’t return to normal life.
Right now, Joe Biden’s most important move is to navigate the widening divide in the Democratic party. If he wins in 2020, it will likely be determined by two factors, the public hatred for Trump and an unsteady coalition between progressives and centrists. Biden’s campaign is straddling a fault line, much as the GOP was in 2016. In the primaries, Biden was attacked for being too centrist, too boring, too old, and for being too much like Obama. Things have changed. When Bernie Sanders began to take a commanding lead, the party brass reeled things back in, betting that Biden could solidify the base and accommodate the progressive left. That’s essentially what he’s done.
In May, Biden formed a slate of task forces combining Obama era democrats and younger progressives. Since then, his policy proposals have straddled the two groups. Biden supports Black Lives Matter but he does not support defunding the police. He’s expressed support for racial reconciliation but has distanced himself from more radical proposals. He’s going to re-enter the Paris Climate Accord, but he’s also saying he’ll be tough on China. He’s for expanding Obamacare, but against Medicare for All. He’s criticized the President’s handling of the coronavirus, but he released a plan to re-open schools. He’s a globalist, but his foreign policy platform is eerily close to “America First.”
He’s going to be vulnerable on the economy. His climate plans are drifting toward the Green New Deal as he’s enlisted AOC and John Kerry to co-chair his climate task force. He released a joint policy proposal with Bernie Sanders last week that includes universal kindergarten, expanded social security, and elimination of cash bail. Although he has not come out with a universal ban on fracking, he wants to eliminate all new permits.
This may curb attempts to paint Biden as an accommodationist to the far left. David Brooks wrote a column this week proclaiming Biden as “not ideological,” a candidate for the working man, non-elite, and the candidate who will finally show the country what “radical centrism looks like.” Even the Washinton Post editorial board thinks this is naive. Biden has been in Washington for almost 50 years. He may not have an Ivy League degree and he may not elicit a Hillary-level response, but he’s not champion of the working man, and he’s not running on the way he governed just four years ago.
Biden is running to the left of Obama. Three determinative questions for the Biden camp will be: How far will he have to go to reign in the progressive branch of the party? Does he have the capacity to campaign? How many moderates can he win in the process?
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak.