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2020 Polling Is Pretty Much Useless at This Stage (Except for TV Ratings)

Tune out the pundits. Polls showing Trump in trouble mean almost nothing this far from Election Day.

Image via CBS News

DoDo the polls really show Donald Trump is headed for big trouble in his reelection campaign? That’s what you might think from watching coverage of early polls of the 2020 general election. In reality, though, it’s just too early to learn much from surveys testing how Trump would fare against various Democrats. Unfortunately, media reports frequently fail to convey this uncertainty, which may lead people to underestimate Trump’s chances.

How do you fill air time more than a year before the general election? One common approach is to engage in breathless hype around the so-called trial heat polls that pit Trump against potential Democratic opponents. Right now, they typically show Trump losing. For instance, a Quinnipiac University poll released last week found Trump trailing behind numerous Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren (by 7 points) and Joe Biden (by 13 points). These data were widely covered on cable news: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow described them as “brutal for Donald Trump” and CNN’s Rosemary Church talked at length about the “commanding lead” Biden seems to hold.

Yet studies show that national polls conducted 300 days in advance have virtually no predictive power. We’re still more than 500 days away.

Courtesy of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, here are just a few examples showing how wrong trial heat polls conducted in June of the year prior to an election can be:

  • In June 1983, Walter Mondale led Ronald Reagan 49% to 39%.
  • In 1991, George H.W. Bush was supported by 51% of Americans, compared to 28% who supported a Democratic candidate and 21% who said they didn’t know.
  • In 1995, Bob Dole led Bill Clinton 48% to 44%.
  • In June 2011, any Republican candidate was preferred to Barack Obama 44% to 39%.

We saw that same pattern in June 2015, when a CNN/ORC poll found Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump 59% to 34% — not exactly a useful forecast of how the election would turn out.

Studies show that national polls conducted 300 days in advance have virtually no predictive power. We’re still more than 500 days away.

Sometimes these trial heat polls analyze specific states, a narrow focus which is even less likely to prove informative in 2020. For instance, another recent Quinnipiac poll showed Trump trailing Biden in Texas by 4%, prompting a CNN anchor to wonder, “For more than 40 years, Texas voters have backed Republican candidates in every presidential election, but could that be changing?” Similarly, leaked Trump campaign polling showed him trailing Biden in key states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

But in general, swing state polls like these are likely to prove even less useful than national polls at this stage of the election cycle. The principal reason is that state polls tend to move in parallel. If the economy improves and Trump’s approval ratings rise, he will perform better across the board (and vice versa if things get worse for him).

Some caution is required before dismissing these early polls entirely, of course. As Harvard University political scientist Ryan Enos notes, Trump’s weak poll numbers in early trial heats could prove more predictive than past presidents. His low approval ratings are unusually steady, which reflects both his focus on appealing to his base and the realities of an era with record partisan polarization in presidential approval. As a result, his support in 2020 may remain within the same narrow band in which his approval ratings typically fall (the low- to mid-40s).

On the other hand, there are reasons to think that trial heat polls are underestimating Trump’s chances. In 2016, he had terrible poll numbers too, including the highest unfavorable ratings in history, and still attracted almost as many votes as we would have expected a generic Republican to receive. If he does so again, he has a good chance of winning.

Moreover, the same factors that aided Trump in 2016 suggest that he will perform better than early polls suggest in 2020. First, Hillary Clinton was hampered by the tendency for incumbent parties to perform poorly when seeking a third White House term. By contrast, Trump is only seeking a second term for the GOP, an election which typically bodes well for incumbents.

We also should not discount the current strength of the economy, which tends to benefit the party in power. Historically, incumbents in these circumstances run campaigns that make the election a referendum on the economy and win (though Trump may struggle to change the subject from presidential conduct, as Al Gore did after the Lewinsky scandal in 2000).

Ultimately, as The Economist’s G. Elliott Morris points out, the polls do underscore that Trump remains in an unenviable position. The media is not wrong to point out this fact. However, few reports adequately convey how unpredictable 2020 still remains. That’s why betting markets currently give Republicans a 48% chance of holding the White House — nearly even odds. News coverage should reflect this uncertain reality.

Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan

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