In the week before the 2016 election, the pollsters were adamant Hillary Clinton had it in the bag. You remember what the final election forecasts were like: The New York Times said Clinton had a 92 percent chance of winning. HuffPost said 98 percent. FiveThirtyEight, comparatively cautious, gave her a mere 71 percent shot at victory. And I live in Minnesota, a state so blue it was the sole vote against re-electing President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Both locally and nationally, the matter seemed settled — until, of course, we had a President Trump.
With the 2020 race underway, that memory has me duly skittish about polls. It also has me deeply curious about the internal polling data the Trump campaign is using. "Nervous Nancy Pelosi is doing everything possible to destroy the Republican Party," the president tweeted Tuesday. "Our Polls show that it is going to be just the opposite. The Do Nothing Dems will lose many seats in 2020." This could be bluster or wishful thinking; Trump is not above describing reality as he'd like it to be. But after 2016, suffice it to say I'd like to see the numbers he's seeing.
Tuesday was not the first time Trump has claimed to have internal polling predicting a strong showing for himself or his party in the coming election. "One of the greatest and most powerful weapons used by the Fake and Corrupt News Media is the phony Polling Information they put out," he wrote in September. "Many of these polls are fixed, or worked in such a way that a certain candidate will look good or bad. Internal polling looks great, the best ever!" Tweets in August and June were similarly explicit declarations about private campaign data, and the falsity of media polls more generally is always a favorite theme.
The fact that Trump has never shared specific internal numbers militates against the possibility that he's telling the truth. The president has tweeted classified imagery before and otherwise made public information that usually would not be revealed. If he is unbothered by federal classification guidelines, surely he wouldn't hesitate to post flattering campaign info. If "Our Polls" were truly that fantastic, wouldn't Trump post a screenshot?
Yet we also have the evidence of Trump's campaign rally locations to consider. Again, Minnesota is a Democratic stronghold and has been for decades. The bulk of the population is here in the Twin Cities, where in local races the general election line-up looks like a Democratic primary. But Trump keeps visiting. He came to Duluth in June of last year, to Rochester last October, and to Minneapolis itself a few weeks ago.
This is noteworthy because, as a Rolling Stone report on the Duluth rally noted, "Trump does not tend to visit states he cannot in some way claim as his." Moreover, if he's following the 2016 script — lots of rallies and targeted online advertising in states deemed winnable, but little in the way of traditional, in-person ground game — these events shed important light on Trump's 2020 strategy. There are other plausible explanations for the president's Minnesota trips, like that one of his favorite Democratic punching bags, Rep. Ilhan Omar, represents Minneapolis. Still, that can't explain the rallies in Duluth and Rochester. What can explain them is the Trump campaign sincerely thinking Minnesota is in play.
A Politico report from August suggests turning Minnesota red in 2020 is a fixation for Trump, who considers it the Midwest state "that got away in 2016." The data available to the public suggests a flip is improbable. Granted, Trump lost Minnesota in 2016 by a fairly small margin (1.5 percent), and he did win plenty of longtime Democratic counties.
But at the state-wide level, the closeness of the 2016 race was more about Democratic voters backing third-party candidates than Trump attracting more support than Republican nominee Mitt Romney did in 2012. It was less his near-win than Clinton's near-loss, which means a stronger (and Midwest-attentive) Democratic nominee in 2020 could probably count Minnesota safe. The 2018 midterms offered a foretaste here: Democrats swept the GOP-friendly suburbs of the Twin Cities to handily retake the lower house of the state legislature. More recently, a local poll asking Minnesotans to pick between Trump and four Democratic primary candidates saw the president consistently getting trounced with margins of 9 to 17 percent.
All that evidence doesn't seem to have deterred Trump, which brings me back to these allegedly glorious internal polls. What does the Trump campaign's data say about Minnesota?
And, for that matter, what does it say about some of the other post-2016 Trump rally sites? Like New Mexico, which went for Clinton in 2016 by 8 percent. Or New Hampshire or Nevada — both, like Minnesota, narrow Clinton wins with a sizeable third-party vote — now reporting extreme presidential disapproval. Or what about key Trump 2016 victory states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, all of which have since moved to net disapproval of Trump?
The map looks bad for Trump now, but ahead of Election Day 2016, Clinton was leading in most of the Midwestern and Rust Belt states where Trump rallied and won. Does he have good cause to think that dynamic will play out again? Because he's still visiting, and Trump typically only visits places he believes he can win.
Maybe his poll boasts are just that. But I'd sure like to get a look at those numbers.
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