Opinion

Why I don't believe polls showing Trump behind in midwestern states

Hold off on the victory parade, Democrats

New Hampshire? Enjoy all four of its electoral votes. Whatever President Trump's campaign suggests to the contrary, the result of the 2020 presidential election will probably come down to the same handful of states that decided it in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

A new poll conducted by the right-leaning Detroit News and a local NBC affiliate shows both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders beating Trump in Michigan by 12 percent. Many of his critics are celebrating the result; others are already declaring the race there effectively over and indulging in speculation about other paths to victories for the bad orange man. I'm not sure this is warranted.

The recent polling is exactly in line with where Trump was in Michigan for most of the 2016 campaign. Survey after survey showed Hillary Clinton with a double-digit lead. At one point according to NBC and The Wall Street Journal Clinton's margin was a seemingly insurmountable 16 percent. Only two polls ever showed Trump ahead, one of them conducted on virtually the eve of the election.

How did he ever manage to pull off his exceedingly narrow victory? Was it because 70-year-old union retirees in Macomb County were #ReadyForHillary until the minute they got on Twitter and watched a livestream of James Comey's press conference about the reopening of the Clinton email investigation? Did the Russian troll farms come through in a big way? I think the answer is that the race in Michigan was always a close one and that the polls simply failed to reflect this reality. There is a vast scientific literature on the subject of honesty in anonymous polling; even when they are assured that their answers are anonymous and that the strangers with whom they are discussing what they intend to do with their secret ballots in two weeks or two months or a year from now are disinterested professionals, many people are simply embarrassed by their own opinions. This kind of low-level dishonesty is practically synonymous with what some people call "Midwestern politeness."

More important, however, than what people may not have been willing to discuss openly on the telephone are the subjects they will address without hesitation. The same Detroit News poll that showed Biden and Sanders well ahead of Trump reports that 53 percent of Michiganders do not think he should be impeached.

This suggests that somewhere in between the president's most enthusiastic detractors and supporters there is a middle ground of voters who have not made up their minds about Trump. They are more than willing to entertain the idea of supporting another candidate. But it will take more than frenetic denunciations of his character or moaning about "obstruction" for them to be convinced. The 2020 presidential election, like the one before it, will at least ostensibly be about issues.

Here Biden is almost uniquely vulnerable among the Democratic front runners in Michigan. His support for NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his opposition to Trump's tariffs, his optimistic, Obama-era view of China as a valued trading partner rather than an existential enemy of American prosperity and security will all to have be either defended or abandoned. Don't expect any of this to be lost on the president or his allies. Axios reported recently that Trump's campaign intends to attack the former vice president "from the left" as a "globalist."

Trump's own record on trade and manufacturing is something of a mixed bag. He was not able to prevent any of the recent layoffs at Ford or General Motors, and his strategy in the trade war now being fought on multiple fronts has been erratic at best. But it is difficult to see how this puts him in a worse position than Biden would be if he ran on the argument that these conflicts are not worth pursuing in the first place.

Would Biden be willing to do an about-face on trade in order to carry states like Michigan? It is not totally unimaginable, especially because no one in the Democratic establishment would ever dream of holding him to whatever he says on the campaign trail. On Wednesday Biden endorsed the Hyde Amendment, which has restricted federal funding of abortion since 1976. This contradicted what he had told an activist from the ACLU only a month ago. Does anyone really think that he would veto a health-care bill that repealed Hyde if Democrats were somehow able to bring one to his desk in, say, 2023? I think it's safe to say that on abortion, and many other issues, Biden has no fixed positions.

Elderly Michigan housewives are not the only people who tell white lies to strangers.

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