Cliff’s Take: Beware of Horse Race Polls

Swing State Numbers Suggest Trump’s Position – Though Bad – Might Not Be Irredeemable

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  • Clifford Young President, US, Public Affairs
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Only 81 days until November 3rd.  The consensus is that Trump’s chances of winning are slim. The horse race polls have been ugly for him over the last few months; Biden leads in both the national as well as swing state matchups. Pundits and political operatives see Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris for VP as a slam dunk.  Our own polling reinforces this.

Unlike 2016, Trump has not succeeded in moving national opinion to his advantage this time around. Instead, the focus is all on the coronavirus, and Trump’s recent efforts to distract smack of desperation. Take his suggestion of moving the election date, slowing down the mail, clandestine support for Kanye West’s campaign, or attacks on Harris’ eligibility to be president.  Increasingly erratic behavior by a desperate man? Or crazy like a fox?

If the election were held today, I believe that Trump’s chances of winning would be low. I give him around a 40% chance of retaining the White House. But the operative word here is today.

There still is a long road to travel before election-day.  And when we look closely, the signals are mixed.

Below I detail the most relevant polling data of the week as I see it.

  1. Again, beware of horse race polls.   I can’t say this often enough.  We should all be cautious of the polls at this stage of the game; they aren’t yet ready for primetime.  The conventions have not happened. Most people are still tuned out.  Biden leads by 11 points. I would divide this number by two to account for the eventual narrowing to come.  From this vantage point, the race is closer than the indicators suggest. Horse race polls


  2. Down but not out.  Yes, Trump’s poll numbers have been ugly.  Our own Reuters/Ipsos polling had him in the high 30’s for much of last month; most recently, he moved up to 40%. As I always say, a sitting president at a 40% approval rating has better than a 50/50 chance of winning the election. Below that tipping point things get ugly. So, Trump definitely is not dead by this metric. But he is on life support. Trump approval rating


  3. Contradictory signals.  In the end, the electoral college will ultimately be decided by outcomes in a few choice swing states. I am paying special attention to Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—the three states that Trump won in 2016 to clinch the White House.  Here the story is complicated.  Yes, Biden leads in the horse race polls.  But from an approval perspective, Trump is in a much better place.  Look at the data. Again, Trump is wounded but not out of the gameSwing state advantage
  4. The enthusiasm advantage.  Democrats are energized—more certain now than they have been in the past two presidential elections. Will this lead to higher Democratic turnout come November? Perhaps, but the coronavirus is muddying the waters. We expect many Americans may want to turn to the safer option of vote by mail instead of in-person. While Democrats are comfortable with voting by mail, Republicans are not. Our own polling shows that a huge GOP majority worry that vote by mail will result in fraud. There might be method to Trump’s postal madness. Put differently, enthusiasm does not always translate into votes.  We will see. Vote certainty and fraud fear


  5. Trumpian magic still in remission.  Trump is a communications savant in my view. His ability to connect with his base at a very visceral level is why he is where he is today. Take his influence on how Americans see immigration as an issue. Its rise is due purely and solely to Trump.  Look at how he uses external proof points to double down on his nativist message.  Also see how the pandemic broke his hypnotic connection over the last six months—immigration tanked as an issue.  Will he be able to refocus his superpowers to “pump prime” his base this election cycle? Will it matter? We will see. Pump priming


Ultimately, none of this bodes well for Trump. But glimmers of hope still exist.  Let’s see how the indicators evolve over the next few weeks.

Again, be safe and be sane.

For more information, please contact:

Clifford Young
President, U.S.
Public Affairs
+1 202 420-2016
[email protected]

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The author(s)

  • Clifford Young President, US, Public Affairs