Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

State Voters Less Undecided Than in 2016

Polls show Biden's lead in Wisconsin safer than Clinton's was in 2016. But how safe?

By - Sep 8th, 2020 01:32 pm
Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Every poll leading up to the November 2016 showed Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump. Yet Trump won.

That November surprise has left Democrats leery of assuming Democrat Joe Biden‘s continued lead in polls of the state is safe. And has left Republicans feeling they can still win here. Hence both parties are likely to campaign heavily here — Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris both campaigned in Wisconsin yesterday — and spend significant ad dollars here. Wisconsin is among just a handle of states whose electoral votes could decide the election.

Yet the polls show Biden consistently winning in surveys of voters. Real Clear Politics, which averages all polls, shows Biden with a 5 percent lead over Trump. And that average includes a Fox News poll, which had Biden up by 8 percent. Fivethirtyeight.com has Biden with a 5.8 percent lead over Trump in its averaging of polls. The Princeton Election Consortium ranks Wisconsin not just as “leans” or “likely” Democratic but as a “safe” Democratic state.

Charles E. Cook, Jr, whose Cook Political Report was founded in 1984 and is the first such electoral prognosticator, is followed closely by both parties. And he offered a stunning pronouncement in an August 25 column, entitled “Many Are Afraid To Say It, but This Is Not a Close Race.”

He noted all the “political analysts, pollsters, and pundits who refuse to state publicly what the data plainly show: that it is very, very unlikely Trump will win 270 electoral votes and the election.”

“Blame the election of 2016,” he wrote. “Virtually everyone but the most die-hard Trump backers that year felt he would lose. Few forecasters thought it was possible for a candidate to lose the national popular vote by over 2 percentage points (nearly 3 million votes) and still win enough states to reach 270 electoral votes.”

Pollsters did make a mistake in 2016, Cook concedes. “Postelection studies revealed that, nationally, there was a slight over-sampling of whites with college degrees and a slight under-sampling of whites with less than four-year degrees. Since then, most pollsters have begun to correct for that, weighting white voters by level of educational attainment.”

Which suggests polls aren’t making the same error they made in 2016.

The Cook Political Report’s analysis shows Biden with 308 electoral college votes and Trump with 187. To win, Trump would have to sweep the tossup states of Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and the second congressional district of Maine, which allots electoral votes by congressional districts and also grab 43 of the 90 electoral college votes in the lean Democratic category. One the states in that category is Wisconsin and its 10 votes.

“Go through the top-line results of high-quality polls, Cook’s column notes, “and you’ll find that majorities of voters do not like Trump personally, they do not approve of his handling of the job overall, and they disapprove of his entire approach to the coronavirus. When asked about personal attributes, Trump fares poorly in most surveys and trails Biden in most of the categories when the two are compared… How does an incumbent prevail in the face of this? I just don’t see how the reasons why Trump was underestimated then still apply now.”

But we are still eight weeks away from the election, Biden and Trump have yet to debate, and the run of fast changing events in 2020 could still see something arise that changes the political calculus. In 2016 the last minute announcement by FBI director James Comey that the FBI might be reinvestigating the private email server Hillary Clinton used while Secretary of Stzte cost Clinton the race, a post-election analysis by Fivethirtyeight founder Nate Silver concluded:

“At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by 3 or 4 percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.”

Can something similar arise in 2010 that hands Wisconsin to Trump? It’s certainly possible, but less likely in 2020 for the reasons that pollsters like Charles Franklin, who runs the respected Marquette Law School poll, have noted: the voters are far more hardened into pro- and anti-Trump camps with far fewer who are undecided.

The most recent MU poll, conducted in early August, found Biden favored by 49 percent and Trump by 44 percent, with six percent saying “they will vote for neither, don’t know who they will vote for, or don’t want to give an opinion”. The results were similar in June (Biden at 50 percent,  Trump with 44 percent) and it May (Biden 49 percent, Trump 45 percent).

By contrast, Franklin notes, the percent of undecideds during the months before the 2016 election was nearly twice as high.

Wisconsin is also likely to have fewer votes going to third party candidates. In 2016 Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson got 3.6 percent of the vote and Green Party candidate Jill Stein got 1 percent, and all told, nearly 6 percent of the vote went to third party candidates. In 2020 there won’t be any third party candidates as well known as Stein and Johnson.

Going into the 2016 election, there were a unusually high number of voters who were undecided, Franklin told the New York Times. But this race is far more stable. “You’ve got a smaller third-party share and a smaller pool of people still to break so that makes it less uncertain going into the last 60 days,” he noted.

In 2016, Trump was the candidate of change, but precisely what that change would be was unclear. Now he is the incumbent and after four tumultuous years in office, his support and opposition seems baked in. In the MU polls his approval rating in Wisconsin has never been lower than 44 percent nor higher than 48 percent in the last two years. How does he get to 50 percent plus one vote?

All of which suggests the four to six percent margin Biden has in Wisconsin is more solid than Clinton’s six percent margin in the last MU poll before the 2016 election. In essence, the MU Poll shows, Trump would have to run the table, grabbing every uncommitted voter left in Wisconsin.

Which is more or less what he did in 2016. That last MU poll had Clinton getting 46 percent and she got 46.5 percent in the election, and Trump getting 40 percent, but he got nearly all the undecideds, ending up with 47.2 percent of the vote.

And that’s the scenario that is keeping Democrats up at night.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

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