I can think of four strikes against it off the top of my head.
1. It’s a poll of registered, not likely, voters. Virtually every other pollster has been focused on likely voters for weeks.
2. It’s an outlier. No other poll lately shows a lead for Biden this big, including other polls released yesterday.
3. It’s outdated. Even if it’s on the mark, this poll was conducted before Trump announced he had COVID. In 2020, when 17 blockbuster news stories happen every day, no poll is accurate for more than like 45 minutes.
4. This same pollster had Hillary Clinton up by — ta da — 14 points right around this time in 2016. How’d that race turn out?
We’ll consider those objections in turn below. I do think this result is overstating Biden’s margin (or that it’s a blip and that it’ll return to the status quo of an eight-point Biden lead soon enough), but first let’s look at the details. NBC/WSJ has it 53/39 via two days of polling after the debate but before Trump’s diagnosis. That’s Biden’s biggest lead of the race and shows a six-point swing towards the Democrat since the last survey.
The biggest declines for Trump in the poll come from seniors (who are now backing Biden by a 62 percent-to-35 percent margin) and suburban women (58 percent to 33 percent).
And men 50 years and older moved from a 13-point advantage for Trump in the pre-debate NBC News/WSJ poll, to a 1-point advantage for Biden in this latest poll…
Additionally, 19 percent of voters say they’re more likely to support Biden after the debate, versus 6 percent who say they’re more likely to back Trump…
The new NBC News/WSJ poll also finds Biden holding a whopping 32-point advantage on which candidate has the better temperament to be president, with 58 percent of voters picking Biden, versus 26 percent picking Trump.
I can certainly believe that Trump hurt himself with his debate performance. In fact, NBC finds his favorable rating dropped from -11 before the debate to -16 afterward. I can also believe that he might have done himself the most damage among seniors and suburban women, two groups that might be more inclined to look dimly on bullying, unpresidential behavior.
But a 14-point swing from Trump to Biden among men over 50, a classic Trump demographic? Not likely. Not likely.
Even if it’s not really 53/39, though, could it be that Biden’s lead really has increased since the debate and is now in “oh sh*t” territory? Yeah. Let’s go through the criticisms above.
1. The fact that NBC polled registered voters instead of likely voters is questionable, but the higher you expect turnout to be this fall, the less questionable it becomes. They’re betting that turnout will be very, very high, which seems like a safe bet:
Our bipartisan team of pollsters has chosen to use only reg voters for the rest of the election — due to the sky-high interest, record early voting and all the mail-in ballots.
Also, our poll uses voter-file lists, so we also know who these voters are + past voting history
— Mark Murray (@mmurraypolitics) October 4, 2020
It’s possible that NBC is underestimating a turnout advantage for Trump by using a sample of registered voters, but they’re not underestimating it by 10 points or some similarly bizarre amount that would make a 14-point race suddenly look tight.
2. It’s true that no other recent poll has had Biden up 14. In fact, another post-debate poll from IBD/TIPP puts his lead at just three points(!). But that one’s even more of an outlier than NBC is. For instance, the Democratic firm Change Research found Biden ahead by 13 in a poll conducted the day of and the day after the debate. Other polls published this week (including Rasmussen) have him up somewhere between seven and nine. A new one from Reuters out yesterday — which includes data gathered after Trump’s COVID diagnosis — finds him up 10, slightly higher than where he stood in the weeks before the debate.
There’s evidence that the debate may have hurt Trump too. The NYT released two polls on Saturday showing Biden up seven in Pennsylvania and five in Florida. The topline numbers didn’t move much after the debate but the marks for Trump’s performance on Tuesday were brutal:
Voters disapproved of the president’s conduct in the debate by a margin of 65 percent to 25 percent. More than half of voters said they strongly disapproved of his conduct…
The revulsion against Mr. Trump’s performance extended well into his reliable base. One-third of the president’s supporters said they disapproved of his performance, including 11 percent who did so strongly. A modest but potentially significant 8 percent of people who backed him in the survey said the debate made them less likely to support Mr. Trump’s candidacy…
The share of voters who thought Mr. Trump had the temperament and personality to be president dropped by more than a net 10 percentage points.
It’s not just the public surveys either. “Multiple party strategists said their polling in the two nights after the presidential debate had revealed substantial slippage, and not just at the top of the ticket,” the Times warned in a story published Friday. Axios added that “Some top GOP operatives, privy to data from swing states, tell me that this week’s chaotic presidential debate had a calamitous effect on Republican chances in tight Senate races,” with one source noting, “Everyone knew Trump was capable of this kind of behavior, but these voters had never had 90 straight minutes of that behavior thrust in their faces.”
Whether people were alienated by Trump’s boorishness or surprised that Biden wasn’t drooling on himself — or both — there’s now ample evidence that Trump’s big opportunity in Cleveland for a gamechanger wasn’t a gamechanger. Unless it changed the game in Biden’s favor.
3. It’s true that the NBC data is outdated because it doesn’t include reaction to Trump’s battle with COVID. But as noted, the new Reuters poll *does* include reaction and they still have Biden doing slightly better today than he did last month. Quote: “65%, including 9 in 10 registered Democrats and 5 in 10 registered Republicans, agreed that ‘if President Trump had taken coronavirus more seriously, he probably would not have been infected.'” ABC asked a question in that same vein and got this result, also published yesterday:
In two separate questions, an identical 72% said that Trump did not take the “risk of contracting the virus seriously enough,” nor “the appropriate precautions when it came to his personal health.” The poll was conducted by Ipsos in partnership with ABC News using Ipsos’ Knowledge Panel on Friday and Saturday, following Trump’s positive test early Friday morning.
In each of the two questions, over 2 in 5 (43%) Republicans hold the negative sentiments about Trump’s mindset and preventative actions regarding the coronavirus, compared to 95% and 94% of Democrats, respectively.
Voters are now split 50/50 on whether they think he’ll be able to perform his duties as president if there’s a crisis, a grimly ironic twist on the endless GOP messaging about Biden not being up to the demands of the job. Once the president recovers, there’ll be lots of hot takes about Trump gaining ground in the polls because of public sympathy, because he’s a “fighter,” or what have you. If he had gotten COVID despite taking every possible precaution, I think that would be plausible. But because so many people see him as negligent in protecting himself and the people around him, sympathy will be limited. And because his negligence in protecting himself jibes with public perceptions that he’s done a poor job protecting the country, it arguably deepens his biggest electoral liability. I’d expect to see him get a small sympathy bounce once he’s over the virus, but it wouldn’t shock me to see Biden’s polls inch up either as new infections stemming from the outbreak at the White House continue to be reported.
4. NBC’s 2016 poll showing Clinton up 14 in mid-October does feel awfully silly in hindsight…
While I think Trump is in worse shape overall than 4 yrs ago, before getting to fired up about this one, worth noting that NBC/WSJ poll released 10/10/16 had Clinton up 14 points in head to head matchup 52-38. https://t.co/NkAbK3KHOh https://t.co/sLL57aYnTH
— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) October 4, 2020
… which invites us to conclude that the new data is silly too. But remember: That 2016 poll wasn’t a crazy outlier at that moment in the campaign. That was right after the “Access Hollywood” tape dropped, the worst stretch of polling Trump had during that race. Scroll down here to mid-October and you’ll find multiple surveys placing Clinton’s lead at 10 points or higher in the aftermath. It probably *is* the case that she led very big in mid-October. Her lead ended up collapsing due to other circumstances:
Hard to believe it but at this point four years ago, the three most significant determinants of the 2016 campaign hadn’t happened yet: Access Hollywood tape (Oct. 7), Wikileaks dump (Oct. 7-Election Day) and Comey intervention (Oct. 28)
— Kyle Cheney (@kyledcheney) October 4, 2020
Wikileaks probably took a chunk out of her, the Comey letter took a big chunk, and the simple fact that Trump was the “change” candidate led late deciders to break for him by a huge margin. The encouraging part of that for Trump fans is the fact that there are still probably, oh, 500 or so blockbuster news developments still to come before Election Day given the pace of 2020. Big things could happen, theoretically, that shift the race towards him in a hurry. But that doesn’t mean NBC’s poll is wrong. And he’s running out of time.