The Polling Is Imperfect, but It’s Bad News for Trump

Watching politics is an addiction, in which an assortment of websites provides hourly fixes, particularly in the form of poll aggregates and models like RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight.

I confess, I’m not above the habit, even though there are limitations to poll aggregations. Both of the main ones include surveys that I find awfully sketchy—and a couple that I find little short of fraudulent. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, which is far more sophisticated than the more raw RealClearPolitics, attempts to address the wide range in caliber of pollsters by assigning a rating for each pollster based on their track records. That has value, though I have real questions about many of the pollster ratings. I see some pretty mediocre firms with good ratings and some of the best in the business, many political firms whose polls are 99.9 percent of the time in the private domain, with lower ratings based on the very few polls that are publicly available.

But those who watch the averages closely may see what would seem to be two different situations right now. If you only followed RealClearPolitics averages, you would see President Trump’s job approval rating ticking up in recent weeks, from 41 percent approving as recently as July 18, to 44 percent approving as of Monday afternoon. In that same period, his disapproval rating dropped from 56 to 54 percent.

Not surprisingly, that same RCP average showed that former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead over Trump has declined a bit. On July 18, Biden was ahead of Trump 49 to 41 percent. Biden ticked up to 51 percent in late July before returning to his current standing of 49 percent. Trump’s share, meanwhile, has ticked up to 42 percent, meaning the margin separating the two now stands at 7 points.

If you looked across the Web at FiveThirtyEight, however, you would have seen an improvement for Trump—but a smaller one. On July 18, Biden led by 9 points, 50 to 41 percent; on Monday, Biden led by 8 points, 50 to 42 percent. Like the shift in the horse race that RealClearPolitics calculated, that marked a miniscule change. But after a decline, if you are on Team Trump, you’ll cheer for anything you can.

So, has there been any movement? If you look at polls in the current RCP average, covering July 21 to Aug. 2, you’ll notice that there is not a single poll that used live telephone interviewers. Rather, all are either online or interactive voice-response polls, aka robo polls. For the last few months, the online and robo polls have been a bit kinder to Trump than the gold-standard live-telephone-interview surveys. And of those online polls, none are from some of the superior entities that do that methodology, like the Pew Research Center.

The last eight live-telephone surveys put Biden’s lead at 8 (a Fox poll conducted in July and a PBS/NPR/Marist poll), 10 (ABC/Washington Post), 11 (NBC News/Wall Street Journal), 12 (a Fox poll from June and Monmouth), 14 (New York Times/Siena), and 15 points (Quinnipiac). In terms of quality battleground-state polling, there again seems to be little movement. Biden is ahead in all 20 states that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and at least a half-dozen of the 30 that Trump carried, including Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Another four or so fall within the margin of error, including Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas.

There are things that could turn this race around for Trump, but none look imminent or even likely. Many on Team Trump had been counting on the economy opening up with strong growth in this third quarter as consumers make up for lost time. The resurgence of the coronavirus makes that scenario considerably less likely. The 5- or 6-point bounce that often boosts candidates after nominating conventions looks less likely as well; it’s hard to see how virtual conventions can goose the numbers like the real thing. And speaking of debates, Chris Wallace’s interview on Fox News Sunday should not give Trump’s supporters encouragement about how he will handle questions from reporters who may not be as polite as Wallace was.

A focused and disciplined president with all of the advantages of incumbency might be able to climb out of this hole. Maybe. But this is a real deep hole. The data suggest though that the tolerance that voters had for Trump’s unconventional style may have ended with his handling—or mishandling—of the pandemic, and the killing of George Floyd, and subsequent nationwide demonstrations. It appears that among those outside his base, his credibility has taken a beating, his judgement and motives suspect. Trump’s ability to draw support beyond his base was predicated on keeping an economic tailwind that looks unlike to exist by November.

The issue of reopening the economy brings all of these to a head. Last month, the ABC/Washington Post poll asked, “What do you think is more important—trying to control the spread of the coronavirus, even if it hurts the economy, or trying to restart the economy, even if it hurts efforts to control the spread of the virus?” Just 33 percent chose Trump’s oft-stated course of restarting the economy as soon as possible, while 63 percent chose the former option. In fact, 52 percent responded to a follow-up question by saying they strongly agree with the option that suggests controlling the virus, twice as many as the 26 percent who strongly wanted to reopen the economy. On one of the most important and consequential policy choices one can imagine, a large majority took the opposite view of the president. That suggests big problems.

Most of the networks and papers that sponsor the kinds of surveys that are worth putting great credence in are holding off polling until after Biden chooses a running mate.

We may be in this quality-poll desert for a while longer. It might be a good time for us to dial back on our poll habit.

This story was originally published on on August 4, 2020