Cliff’s Take: Contradictory Signals

The Polls Project a Biden Victory; But We Must Look More Closely

The author(s)
  • Clifford Young President, US, Public Affairs
Get in touch
Cliff's Take banner


Only 38 days to the election.  You can feel the intensity; there is so much at stake this year.  Americans independent of their political genotype see this as an existential contest. Though they might not agree on the reasons why, a majority concur with Joe Biden’s assertion that the 2020 election is a “fight for the soul of the nation.”

Many professional forecasters see Biden as the favorite.  Take Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight election forecast, which puts Biden’s chances at 77%; or The Economist which puts them at 85%; and Sam Wang—who famously ate a bug on TV in 2016 for his forecasting miss—gives it to Biden.

So, a slam dunk, right? Not so fast.

The signals are mixed. They have been this entire year. I agree with my Ipsos colleague Chris Jackson that the distribution of possible outcomes run from a slight Trump win to a Biden blow out. The odds, in other words, are tilted towards Biden and the Democrats.  This said, we all should heed the contradictory evidence in front of us and accept uncertainty.

Let me detail my logic from some polling odds and ends of the week.

  1. Mixed signals. My analytical angst persists. In the key swing states, the polls have Biden in the lead; but approval ratings and our base rate model suggest Trump. Look at the data below. Again, a murky picture.  If we take the mid-point between the two approaches, it looks to be a close election.  Keep in mind that the average error in these states in 2016 was 5-points in favor of Clinton. Same song, different chorusMixed signals


  2. RBG effect? Let’s separate the signal from the noise. Yes, RBG’s death is significant. Justice Ginsburg is a seminal historical figure. Prospectively, the person who fills her seat will have a profound impact on the Court for generations to come. This is why everyone inside the Beltway is scrambling.  But will this issue have significant impact on voters? Probably not. Look at the data. RBG’s death seems to energize (or repulse) the bases about equally. Muted effect. RBG


  3. Signal 1: Economy vs. COVID. In my view, the election will come down to who owns the main issue for voters. Again, we know that the candidate strongest on the main issue on election-day wins about 85% of the time. Good gauge. But, we are still a long ways from November 3rd. At the moment, the coronavirus is the top issue; jobs and the economy second. Biden leads on the coronavirus; Trump controls jobs and the economy. If things stay as they are, Biden wins.  If priorities invert, Donald Trump will remain the denizen of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Main issue


  4. State Signals: Economy vs. COVID. Like at the national level, the top two voter priorities in the swing states are the coronavirus and jobs/economy. The entire election will come down to rank ordering here.  Trump is downplaying the virus and up-playing the economy; Biden the reverse. However, the sands are shifting right now. In the end, which will win the day? The coronavirus death toll or jobless claims?  We will see.  But mark my words—this will decide the election. Leading issues in the swing states


  5. The hand of Fauci. Trump is uniquely aware of this straightforward dichotomy—the coronavirus is bad for his electoral chances; the economy is good. On the coronavirus, Trump needs more proof points to spin this one—didn’t he say we would have a vaccine “in a matter of weeks” earlier in September? Trump’s dilemma—he is the least credible messenger on the vaccine. Look at the data below.  In contrast, in Fauci Americans trust!  Could he be the king maker?  How much of an impact will Fauci’s intermittent doses of science have on Trump’s efforts to shape the vaccine narrative? We will see. Vaccine trust


For more on this week’s polling, see my colleague Chris Jackson’s webinar on the election.  As always, be safe, be sane.

For more information, please contact:


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


About Ipsos

Ipsos is now the third largest market research company in the world, present in 90 markets and employing more than 18,000 people.

Our research professionals, analysts and scientists have built unique multi-specialist capabilities that provide powerful insights into the actions, opinions and motivations of citizens, consumers, patients, customers or employees. Our 75 business solutions are based on primary data coming from our surveys, social media monitoring, and qualitative or observational techniques.

“Game Changers” — our tagline — summarizes our ambition to help our 5,000 clients to navigate more easily our deeply changing world.

Founded in France in 1975, Ipsos is listed on the Euronext Paris since July 1st, 1999. The company is part of the SBF 120 and the Mid-60 index and is eligible for the Deferred Settlement Service (SRD).

ISIN code FR0000073298, Reuters ISOS.PA, Bloomberg IPS:FP

The author(s)
  • Clifford Young President, US, Public Affairs