It makes me laugh how sensitive people get about bad polling this far out, and by “people” I mean you-know-who. A few days ago the Times reported that “After being briefed on a devastating 17-state poll conducted by his campaign pollster, Tony Fabrizio, Mr. Trump told aides to deny that his internal polling showed him trailing Mr. Biden in many of the states he needs to win, even though he is also trailing in public polls from key states like Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania.” He didn’t like that:
At first glance, by “Suppression Polls” I thought he meant that the media was trying to suppress his turnout by publishing discouraging information — 17 months before Election Day, when there’ll be literally thousands of domestic and foreign developments between now and then that ultimately determine how people vote. That would be inane. But no, what he meant (I think?) is that the press has the “real” polls and is suppressing them in order to … make him feel bad, I guess? I don’t know. If you’re going to invent a narrative, “Tight race between Trump and Biden in battlegrounds” sounds juicier than “Biden leading Trump by margins that’ll never, ever hold up in reality.”
But Trump has been consistent about this. From the first few weeks of his administration, any news that might reflect badly on him is necessarily “fake news.” And that definitely includes polling.
The wrinkle in this new ABC report is that his own campaign manager has confirmed that these polls are real — or were. They’re now outdated, says Brad Parscale. And wouldn’t you know it, he says that in the latest internal polling Trump has zoomed ahead.
The polling data, revealed for the first time by ABC News, showed a double-digit lead for Biden in Pennsylvania 55-39 and Wisconsin 51-41 and had Biden leading by seven points in Florida. In Texas, a Republican stronghold, the numbers showed the president only leading by two points…
“These leaked numbers are ancient, in campaign terms, from months-old polling that began in March before two major events had occurred: the release of the summary of the Mueller report exonerating the President, and the beginning of the Democrat candidates defining themselves with their far-left policy message,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale told ABC News in a statement. “Since then, we have seen huge swings in the President’s favor across the 17 states we have polled, based on the policies now espoused by the Democrats. For example, the plan to provide free health care to illegal immigrants results in an 18-point swing toward President Trump.”
Attorney General Bill Barr’s summary of special counsel Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election was released on March 24. While the Trump campaign’s full poll, which canvassed 17 states, was already in the field, it was well underway for four additional days after the release of Barr’s letter to the public.
Recently, said Parscale, the campaign has begun to conduct polling keyed to specific issues that Democrats are running on and those polls are much more encouraging, with Trump allegedly leading in Florida by eight points. (Spoiler: He will not win Florida by anything like eight points, just like Biden won’t win Pennsylvania or Wisconsin by double digits.) The trouble with his broader argument, that the March data is outdated because it doesn’t include voter reaction to Mueller clearing Trump of collusion, is that there have been lots of public polls since then showing that Mueller’s conclusions didn’t move the needle much for Trump. His average job approval on March 24 was 43.1; today it’s 44.1. That’s a good number for him and shows promise, but a one-point average gain isn’t going to completely turn around a race like the Pennsylvania one where Biden is supposedly up by 15.
Plus, Parscale neglects to mention that Biden got a big bounce when he finally entered the race in late April, a month after the internal poll described above was completed. He went from 30 percent or so in the Democratic primary average all the way up to 41 percent before cooling off and returning to the 32.3 percent support he currently enjoys. It’s highly unlikely that Biden’s announcement triggered rising support for him in various public polls and distinguished him as the clear frontrunner in the Democratic field and yet, simultaneously, saw him tank against Trump in various battleground states where he had been leading big. Even Parscale’s point about polling on the issues doesn’t really add up for Biden. It may be that some of Bernie Sanders’s more wild-eyed plans poll poorly when tested, but Biden’s guaranteed to embrace a more moderate agenda if he’s the nominee. If it’s true that even Biden’s platform is toxic to American voters than what Parscale means to say is that no Democrat can win. Trump’s victory is assured. No one believes that.
Here’s a more convincing explanation for why this internal poll can be safely regarded, from the pollster himself:
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) June 14, 2019
That would explain the ludicrous 16-point Biden lead Fabrizio found in Pennsylvania. But this too comes with a grain of salt: Per the Times excerpt up top, Trump instructed his aides to simply lie about the results when asked. Would Fabrizio tell us the truth about the results if they were unflattering to POTUS, knowing his job might be on the line if he did? And what does he mean specifically when he mentions that Democrats were “defined”? Defined how? If he asked voters, “Do you prefer Donald Trump or Joe Biden, who’s a plagiarist, a China dove, and a cuck?”, he might indeed have seen more voters favor Trump. But that wouldn’t be a very useful poll.
Anyway. The proper response to bad early internal polls is not to make up some nonsense about how they’ve completely turned around in the span of 10 weeks, it’s to point to the track record of polling this early and say, “Who cares?” The early general-election polls tell us nothing. They’re fun for bloggy water-cooler conversation but they’re nothing to worry about yet, let alone lie about.
In the runup to the 2016 presidential election, this same question came up, and FiveThirtyEight analyzed general election polls from 1944 to 2012 that tested the eventual nominees and were conducted in the last two months of the year before the election (so for 2012, that would be November and December of 2011). On average, these polls missed the final result by 11 percentage points.…
Jump back to roughly this point in the 2016 cycle, for example, and Clinton was ahead of all eight of her hypothetical GOP opponents in a May 2015 Quinnipiac poll, with a whopping 50-32 advantage over Trump.
It’s especially foolish to invest in early general-election polls this year when Democrats are split not just among candidates but among ideologies. Is Trump going to face Obama’s VP or an avowed socialist? That’ll matter in swing states, a lot. And yet it’s a complete mystery and will remain so for months.
There’s no reason to sweat the numbers now but there’s no reason to be in denial about them either. Lots of public polling shows that Trump has work to do in battleground states, with the most recent survey dropping just this afternoon. He has a good economic argument for reelection. That may be all he needs.