The media’s predictions of President Donald Trump’s certain defeat are about as confident this year as they were in 2016. You would think pundits’ embarrassing errors in 2016 would provoke some humility, but the narrative has been roughly the same for months: Joe Biden is going to win the election, likely in a landslide.
Charlie Cook declared the race “over” and Hillary Clinton the winner on the strength of a Fox News poll that was issued on October 13, 2016. Four years to the day later, he said Biden will win and that there’s a 40 percent chance he will win “big.” He also said, according to a press release that was just issued, that “if Biden is able to win the states Hillary Clinton lost, he could get enough electoral votes to win the election.” Not much to say about that insightful comment.
It is absolutely true that national polls would predict a clear Biden victory if the country elected presidents through the popular vote. He’s up 10 points in the Real Clear Politics poll average nationally. What is left out of the media’s discussions of whether this or the 2016 race is winnable for Trump is the Electoral College. And for that discussion, it’s worth a look at the states whose electoral votes will decide the election.
In 2016, Trump won by winning battleground states that few expected him to win. Right now, he’s polling slightly and relatively better in those states than he did four years ago.
The graph above shows how Trump’s 2020 performance in polls of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina compares to his 2016 polling performance by dates out from the election. One hundred days out from election day, Biden was up nearly 6 points in battleground states, at a time Clinton was only up 2.3 points. Now he’s up 4.9 points at a time Clinton was up 5.1 points.
Real Clear Politics has a great table that shows how Clinton was polling four years ago to the day in various states. It’s fascinating to look at the battleground states:
So you see that Biden is averaging a 7-point lead in Pennsylvania, but Clinton was averaging a nearly identical lead there four years ago — before Trump won it narrowly on election day. Likewise, Biden’s Florida lead is very similar to Clinton’s lead four years ago. Trump won Florida.
Biden is not performing as well in Wisconsin as Clinton was four years ago. Trump won that state. Biden is doing less well in Michigan, according to the polls, than Clinton did four years ago. Trump won Michigan. Biden’s doing a bit better in North Carolina than Clinton did but Trump won that state by a 4-point margin.
There are a lot of people who don’t put much confidence in polling, but this table shows that even according to the polls themselves, Trump’s performance at this point in the election process is on track with where he was in 2016.
Trump will need to do in 2020 what he did in 2016 — campaign hard in these battleground states and win them. But the numbers show he’s polling slightly better in these battleground states right now than he was at this time in 2016. He’s on track — in the media’s own polls — to do well in the Electoral College.
The media like to use polls to set very powerful narratives during a campaign. The narrative is frequently that the race is not winnable for the Republican. The polls get more reasonable closer to election day, regardless of who wins, and the false narrative gets forgotten.
Throughout 2016, the narrative put forth day in and day out by the media was that Donald Trump simply couldn’t win. Sure, the final polls weren’t off as dramatically as that narrative was, but the narrative is pushed at least in part because it advances the political agenda of the media. The wish frequently becomes reality. The media have pushed the same narrative this time as well, if a bit more angrily.
Four years ago, pundits said the race was over because of how Trump was polling. According to those same polls in the same key battleground states, he’s doing a bit better than he was doing four years ago.