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What the New Polls Really Tell Us about 2024
Dems are already panicking about the polls, here's how to think about the numbers
As if the end of summer wasn’t painful enough, America’s media organizations decided to gift us an avalanche of 2024 general election polling — all of which paints an alarming portrait of a race where the literal fate of democracy is on the line. CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and others have polls out, showing a dead-heat race with major vulnerabilities for President Biden related to his age and his handling of the economy. Most folks assumed that 2024 would be a close election, but Trump has gained strength in spite of the 91 felony charges. This has Democrats very, very concerned. In fact, “very, very concerned” might be an understatement; my Twitter mentions and group chats are bordering on panic. I feel a little responsible because I wrote about the closeness of the race recently, and Jon Favreau and I discussed it at length in the most recent episode of Pod Save America.
If your approach to these polls (or any polls) is to ignore them, kudos — you are healthier than I and can stop reading right now. If you are like me and are addicted to riding on the pollercoaster, I wanted to provide some perspective. I am not trying to assuage your anxiety. You are right to be anxious. This will be an incredibly close election, and the stakes could not be higher. However, perspective and context can help you manage that anxiety.
1. Some Historical Context
At this exact moment twelve years ago, I was sitting in my West Wing office looking at internal campaign polling that showed Barack Obama losing to a generic Republican candidate. Obama’s approval rating in public polling was under 40 percent. The Democratic chattering class had not yet suffered through the shock of 2016, so they were less likely to panic, but Obama’s re-election prospects were still concerning in September of 2011.
As Chris Hayes pointed out on his show last week, it is normal for an incumbent President to be in a dead heat more than a year before the election. In September of 1983, Ronald Reagan led Walter Mondale by one point in a Gallup poll. Fourteen months later, Reagan won 58.9 percent of the popular vote, 525 electoral votes, and 49 states. In August of 1995, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were tied 48-48 in a CNN/Time poll. Clinton then defeated Dole by more than nine points.
Politics has changed a lot in recent years. Increased polarization left the days of landslide victories behind us. However, if the past is prologue, this could be the nadir of Biden’s poll numbers.
2. Biden’s Structural Advantages
Polling is only one data point when analyzing potential political outcomes. The political environment and structural factors also play a role. Looking at the entirety of the picture, one can argue Biden is a very slight favorite against Trump for the following reasons:
Incumbent Advantage: Incumbents and incumbents without a significant primary challenge almost always win. Having more than a year to raise money, unite the party, and build an organization is a big advantage. The ease with which Trump is currently navigating the GOP primary negates that advantage some, but not entirely.
The Economy: This seems counter-intuitive given the recent polling on the economy, but current economic conditions (unemployment rate and GDP) are consistent with an incumbent being reelected. It’s possible that the pandemic, the spike in inflation, and polarization decoupled the reality of the economy from the politics of the economy, but polling is still inconclusive.
A Better Map: Biden’s path to 270 electoral votes is easier. Six states that delivered the Presidency to Biden all voted Democratic in 2022.
Jim Messina, who was Obama’s campaign manager for the reelection, put together an excellent slide deck on the state of play, and I highly encourage you to read it. Trump could win this race. Biden's age is a significant challenge. We have to face that reality, but Biden has some real advantages too..
3. Don’t Tell Yourself a Story About the Polls
In 2012, Republicans who mainlined Fox News simply could not comprehend polls that showed Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney. Because their view of reality was so distorted by the tripe fed to them by Rupert Murdoch’s hate-for-profit propaganda machine, these voters could not fathom that the nation would reelect Obama. Therefore, a cottage industry broke out where conservatives started “un-skewing” the polls, claiming that they included too many Democrats.
I am, unfortunately, seeing some similar behavior from our side. I have seen three specific ways in which some Democrats have tried to dismiss these polls.
First, some pointed out that the polls incorrectly predicted a “Red Wave” in 2022 and are therefore overstating Trump’s support. However, the story is more complicated. The incorrect predictions of a big Republican year were more analytical than mathematical. According to FiveThirtyEight, the polls themselves were quite accurate that year.
The problem wasn’t the polls, it was how people interpreted the polls. Now, it’s very possible these polls are understating support for Biden. But it’s also possible they are undersampling Trump voters as they did in 2016 and 2020.
Second, some have called the Wall Street Journal poll into question because one of the pollsters who worked on the poll was Tony Fabrizio, a Republican who previously worked for Trump. But Fabrizio did not work on the poll alone. The Wall Street Journal traditionally uses one Democratic and one Republican pollster to conduct their polls. For this poll, the Democrat was Mike Bocian of GBAO — a highly respected Democratic firm. The fact that this poll is consistent with the CNN and New York Times polls conducted by non-partisan pollsters suggests that nothing untoward happened here.
Finally, there is confusion surrounding the CNN poll, including an “oversample” of Republicans in the poll. A number of online Democrats have used this to call the poll biased. That is simply a misunderstanding of how polling works. Pollsters often include extra respondents of a certain group to obtain more statistically precise information about them. In this case, CNN included more Republicans so they could learn more about the Republican primary. The final poll results are reweighted to match the overall electorate.
Once again, we should anticipate a close hard-fought race. The sooner we come to terms with the task before us, the better. If somehow — against all evidence — Biden runs away with the election and all our worry and work was for naught, that is a high-class problem.
4. Take the Polls Seriously, Not Literally
It’s easy to get caught in the head-to-head numbers in these polls. “Biden is up one.” “Trump is up by one.” “Holy shit, it’s tied!” Obsessing over slight movement in one direction or the other will drive you insane. Polls are imprecise measures, which is why they have margins of error. In close races, it can be difficult to distinguish movement from statistical noise. The better (and healthier) approach is to look at the broader picture painted by the bulk of the polling. Here’s what the polling tells us that is useful and actionable:
This will be a very close race;
Despite some very obvious vulnerabilities, Trump is a very strong candidate with a unified and highly enthusiastic base.
Trump’s legal problems are likely to only affect things on the margins;
President Biden has a strong foundation but has work to do to rebuild his 2020 electoral coalition;
Biden’s age, perceptions of the economy and ignorance about his record of achievement are three bi impediments to rebuilding that coalition;
Polling does not indicate Biden can’t win, won’t win, or that someone else is more likely to win.
A lot of this we knew intuitively before these polls rained on our late summer parade, but it can be painful to have it thrust in our face by a gleeful cash-strapped media chomping at the bit for those Trump era ratings. Think of the polls as an early roadmap of what needs to be accomplished by November 2024. Like a root canal, the polls are painful but ultimately work to our benefit.
5. Channel Your Anxiety
Here’s the most important tip to deal with these polls — channel your anxiety into action. We mustn’t sit around worrying about the outcome of the election. We can spend our time trying to affect the outcome. Here are a few things you can do:
Before the 2024 election, there are important elections in 2023, including a key governor’s race in Kentucky, control of the Virginia legislature is up for grabs, and Ohioans are attempting to amend their Constitution to enshrine the right to choose. If you go to Vote Save America, you can sign up for the “No Off Years” campaign to learn about how to volunteer with and donate to the grassroots organizations working all of these elections.
In Wisconsin, Republicans are trying to lock in their gerrymandered minority rule by potentially impeaching the newly elected Supreme Court Justice before she even hears her first case. To help Wisconsin Democrats fight back, go to https://www.defendjustice.com/
Become a monthly donor to the Biden campaign (you can do so here). Monthly donations are incredibly helpful because it allows them to better plan their investments.
There have been two main reactions to these polls from Democratic strategists, pundits, and progressive media figures. The first is to adopt a sky is falling approach, and the other is to say that everything is going to be “fine.” Unsurprisingly — and perhaps unsatisfactorily — the reality is somewhere in-between. My best advice to deal with these polls and everything else political is to worry about everything and panic about nothing. This is a winnable race, but we have to go out and win it.