We've totally forgotten 2016's lessons about polls
We've reached that point in the 2020 election season (when did it begin, by the way?) at which there is still way too much time between now and the first primary contests. All the early dropouts are gone; we have more or less exhausted our appetite for the TV debate equivalent of 12-course meals. All we have left are polls.
That doesn't mean we need to talk about them. Does anyone think it is of any importance whatsoever that Donald Trump's approval rating is hovering somewhere around 42 percent, i.e., a point higher than Barack Obama's was at this point in his first term? People telling you that he is doomed because of this are liars or fools or both (the two are rarely, if ever, mutually exclusive). If anything, one might be inclined to think that a president who can manage to win the unabashed approval of just under half the American people despite three years of almost uniformly negative media coverage, frivolous partisan investigations, and the binning of every discourse-related norm imaginable might prove to be a very formidable candidate indeed. But what do I know? I'm one of those idiots who thought Trump would win Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio last time.
The only thing that could possibly matter less than Trump's approval rating is how pollsters say he is faring in national head-to-head matchups with Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (yes!), and, no doubt, Greta Thunberg. Did you know, ladies and gentlemen, that according to a link somewhere on the internet, Trump is on pace to lose the popular vote by 10 points to Democrats whose chances of winning their party's nomination vary in likelihood from "a good shot" to "never going to happen"? This is all very interesting, I'm sure, but it has nothing to do with how we actually elect presidents in this country. All that matters is how the president performs in the handful of states that will actually be competitive in the next election (hint: the ones that were competitive last time).
When we look at the polls in these states we see a very different narrative. In Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida, for example, Trump is losing to Joe Biden by only two points, significantly less than the apparent lead Clinton had over him in these places in 2016 — indeed, totally within the polls' own acknowledged margin of error. In the same states, he is actually beating Warren, also by about 2 percent. So Biden could be on his way to reclaiming the White House for Democrats by running as the heir to Barack Obama; Trump could be on the verge of re-election; the stodgy Midwest could be on the cusp of a progressive revolution fronted by a former Harvard Law professor. The truth is we have no idea.
I would never dream of suggesting that journalists should stop paying attention to poll results. If there were no audience for ill-thought-out instantaneous reactions to meaningless non-events, lots of people, including yours truly, would be out of a job. But surely Trump has been facing more pressing questions over the last few months than how he was doing in a meaningless national straw poll against the avocado poop guy.
Allow me to suggest ever so humbly that if 2016 gets to be a mulligan, in 2020 we all need to do better. If Trump wins again, we should not be allowed to shriek or throw our hands in the air asking how this was possible. The man is the incumbent president of the United States. An incumbent president has lost re-election only once in my lifetime. Every possible action has been taken by every conceivable actor on the national stage to undermine and discredit him, and he still looks like a moderately unpopular first-term president who remains capable of eking out another victory. The 2020 election might have even more to teach us than the last one.
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