Poll matters: Why it’s much too soon to write off Trump’s reelection

Five months from the presidential election in November and analysts across the political spectrum are saying the electoral map is bleak for President Donald Trump.

Even conservative analysts have written ominously about Trump’s prospects for reelection. “Republicans have every reason to be worried” about the presidential election in November, Matthew Continetti, founding editor of the Washington Free Beacon, wrote recently.

Storm clouds over DC

Storm clouds looming for Trump? [Photo by WJC]

The polls may not look promising for Trump. But they’ve never looked promising.

Not in 2016, when he stunned analysts and pollsters by carrying (if by narrow margins) states he was given little or no chance of carrying — states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania where the election turned.

As I point out in Lost in a Gallup, my forthcoming book about polling failure in presidential elections, pre-election surveys gave Trump almost no chance of winning Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2016. According to data compiled by RealClearPolitics, Trump trailed in all 19 state-level conducted in  Wisconsin from late June to early November 2016, and trailed in all 31 polls conducted in Michigan from early July to shortly before the election. Trump led in only two of the dozen polls conducted Pennsylvania from late October to a few days before the election.

Had Trump lost those three states to Democrat Hillary Clinton, he would have fallen 12 electoral votes short of winning the presidency.

The point here is that it is too early to count out Trump. Summertime polls can be a misleading measure of what will happen in voting in early November.

The history of election polling makes that lesson fairly clear.

Almost no one remembers now, but George Gallup’s polling in July 1936 had Republican Alf Landon leading President Franklin D. Roosevelt in electoral votes, 272 to 259. And even in early October 1936, Gallup’s poll was signaling a tight race, that Landon remained within striking distance of an Electoral College victory.

Roosevelt won by more than 11 million votes in one of America’s most lopsided presidential elections ever. Roosevelt carried 46 states and 523 electoral votes; Landon won two states and 8 electoral votes.

So why reach back to 1936? The year marked the dawn of the modern era of election polling. Gallup and rival pollsters Elmo Roper and Archibald Crossley were putting to practice quasi-scientific polling methods that challenged the mass-mail technique  the Literary Digest magazine had used for years — with predictive success.

Until 1936.

Results of the Digest’s mass-poll that year signaled a landslide — for Landon.

The Digest estimated Landon would carry 33 states and 370 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 15 states and 161 electoral votes. The Digest poll pegged Roosevelt to win 41 percent of the popular vote. It missed by nearly 20 percentage points.

Polling techniques have become much more sophisticated since 1936, to be sure. But polls are not infallible and they sometimes struggle to capture unanticipated developments late in presidential campaigns.

For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s dramatic pledge late in the 1952 campaign to “go to Korea” in seeking an end to the war there may have altered the trajectory of what pollsters thought was a close race. Eisenhower won in a landslide that no pollster anticipated.

In 2000, George W. Bush led Al Gore in most pre-election polls, but lost the popular vote — in part because of reports he had been arrested in Maine years before for driving under the influence of alcohol. Bush had not made known his arrest record and the disclosure late in the campaign may well have tipped the popular-vote advantage to Gore.

Clinton may have lost the 2016 election when then-FBI Director James Comey announced in late October that the FBI had reopened its inquiry into the private email server she had used while secretary of state.

As Politico observed in 2016, “Political history is littered with the charred remains of such late-in the-election bombshells that scramble political calculus just as the stakes are at their highest.” 

And there’s another reason why it is way too soon to write off Trump’s chances: His Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is notoriously inclined to gaffes, missteps, exaggeration, creepiness, and insults — all of which have encouraged serious questions about his mental acuity and fitness for the presidency.

Biden has scarcely surmounted such doubts.

Gaffes and more gaffes can be expected from the 77-year-old Biden before Election Day. Trump will be withering in his insults about Biden, whose media handmaidens can protect him from himself and his chronic missteps for only so long.


Since this essay was posted, other analysts have made essentially the same point, that it’s too early to count Trump out; see, for example, here and here.