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With Two Months To Go, a Steady Presidential Race

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September 4, 2020

These last two weeks provided Pres. Trump the best opportunity to change the trajectory of this race. His GOP convention offered a rosy (and inaccurate) portrayal of a president who effectively tackled the coronavirus pandemic. Both during and since the convention, Republicans and the president have focused intensely on the unrest in Kenosha, arguing that it was a snapshot into what the country would look like with Joe Biden in the White House. 

Pollsters and strategists we spoke with over the last couple weeks of August — Republican and Democrat — told us that that didn't see much, if any, real changes taking place in voter perceptions of the election.

This week, a slew of new, high-quality polls out this week confirmed their off-record observations: Biden continues to hold a steady lead over President Trump. 

Post-convention national polls from Quinnipiac, Suffolk/USA Today, CNN and Selzer & Company show  Biden ahead of Trump by 7-10 points. The FiveThirtyEight model, which incorporates a larger universe of polls, puts Biden's lead at 7.4 percent. That's not much different from Biden's pre-convention lead in early August of 8.3 percent.

Battleground state polling from Monmouth, Quinnipiac and Fox News find Trump trailing. More importantly, these polls show the president stuck in the low-to-mid 40 percent range. 

As I've written for a while now, the margin between Biden and Trump is less instructive than the vote share that Trump is getting. For example, a Monmouth poll out this week found Biden's lead over Trump in Pennsylvania had narrowed from seven points in July (51-44 percent) to four points (49 to 45 percent.) A poll out from Quinnipiac this week showed Biden leading Trump by a more robust eight-point margin (52-44 percent) in the Keystone State. While the margins may be different, or have changed, one thing has remained constant: Trump has not been able to improve his share of the vote. He remains stuck at 44/45 percent of the vote. Pennsylvania is one of six states that Trump carried with less than 50 percent of the vote back in 2016. The fact that Trump continues to poll in the mid-40's suggests that his 48 percent showing here in 2016 is his ceiling. That was enough to win the state when third party candidates combined for four points. This year, he can't count on third-party candidates siphoning away that vote. 

The Good News/Bad News For Trump

First, the good news for the president: he's not trailing as badly as he was back in July and August. On July 1, the FiveThirtyEight model put Biden's lead at almost 10 points (9.5 percent). On August 1, Biden's lead was 8.3 percent. 

Trailing your opponent by seven points just two months out from an election is less than ideal for an incumbent president. But, at least Trump is no longer in free fall. That's good news as well for the House and Senate candidates — in traditionally red areas who were watching their own races tighten with Trump's summer plunge.

The question going forward is if this trend line toward a more competitive national contest will continue (Trump trailed Biden by a more modest 4 points in the FiveThirtyEight model in early March),  or if the race has plateaued at Biden +7/+8. 



What The National Polls Can Tell Us

Understandably, many folks are wary of relying on national polls to give us an accurate picture of the race. After all, Clinton's 2.1 percent national margin was good for only 227 electoral college votes. 

We also know that the country is as polarized as ever, making national polling less reflective of individual state outcomes. 

For example, in 1988, George HW Bush beat Michael Dukakis by seven points; basically, the same margin the race sits today. That margin netted Bush 426 Electoral College votes. But, in 1996, Bill Clinton's eight point popular vote win over Bob Dole netted him 47 fewer electoral votes than Bush got just eight years earlier. Barack Obama's 7-point margin in 2008 got him 365 electoral votes — 14 fewer than Clinton received in 1996. 



At the same time, high-quality national polls are more consistently fielded than high-quality state polls. And, for all the criticism of polling in the 2016 election, the national polls were also the most accurate. 

As such, the best way to think of the national polls is that they can help get us in the right neighborhood, but not necessarily to the correct address. The bigger the margin for Biden, the less important that we get the exact address. For example, a seven or eight-point margin may not be enough to put Georgia or Texas into Biden's column. But, it's enough to get him the states he needs to hit 270. The closer the margin is to four points (like we saw back in March), the less helpful the national polls become. And, the more we should just assume a close contest for the Electoral College.