As the election gets closer, people tend to increasingly look for indicators as to what the result might be. This has become more of an art form since the failure of polls to predict Trump’s win in 2016 has made people wary of opinion polls. This problem of polling uncertainty may be accentuated this year because the intensity of the hostility generated by Trump may have resulted in people being more circumspect in revealing their views to pollsters.
Polls should not be totally discounted however. One thing that has surprised me is that although this election season has been extremely turbulent, as might be expected with a volatile president who behaves impulsively resulting in one headline-making event after another, since around mid-June the polling has been remarkably stable, even more so than in previous years, as can be seen in this timeline of the predictions of the Economist model that factors into account both polls and the so-called fundamentals of the economy, such as economic and demographic data.
The timeline of poll averages provided by Real Clear Politics that only uses poll averages is a little more volatile for each candidate but the margin (the blue shaded area at the bottom) has not varied by that much either.
One reason for this stability might be that people decided very early on how they were going to vote. Once you make a decision, you usually stick with it.
Some observers are looking at alternative, more impressionistic and less statistically grounded measures than opinion polls. This is always a dangerous thing to do because we all tend to live in a bubble of family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers who are mostly like minded people, and this may give the impression that our own preferred candidate has more support than they actually have.
Reporter Tim Alberta tries to gauge voter sentiment by measures such as yard signs. This is a notoriously unreliable measure but he thinks he can glean something from what he has seen this year.
At the risk of fighting the last war, I’ve paid an unhealthy level of attention to yard signs over the past year, and particularly since Joe Biden sealed the Democratic nomination this summer. Having logged many dozens of hours this summer and fall driving around the country, two things have stood out.
First, the Trump/MAGA signage has multiplied in mind-boggling ways. Four years ago, it felt like the Republican nominee had reached a saturation point with his name dotting the landscapes of American communities. Not even close. This is obviously ballparking, but whereas in 2016 it seemed like we saw Trump logos on every ninth or 10th lawn, we now see them on every fifth or sixth lawn in those same neighborhoods. It’s a remarkable testament to the passion of the president’s base; it also indicates that the “shy Trump voter” is a thing of the past. The people who flew his flag in 2016 are still doing so; they’re now joined by countless more MAGA devotees, voters who might have once had reservations about Trump, or at least reservations about showing their support for him, but are no longer holding back. Whether the president wins a second term or not, this display of fervency reinforces my belief that we have never seen a politician with such a cult following, and we probably never will again.
The second thing that’s been striking is the Biden signage-not the volume of it, but rather the location. There’s no question Biden banners (and, more recently, Biden/Harris banners) are far outpacing the number of Clinton signs I saw four years ago. But that’s really not saying much. No, what’s been truly interesting is where the Biden posters are popping up. Just in the past few weeks, I’ve seen signs boosting the Democratic nominee (and affiliated liberal causes) in the blue-collar pockets of mid-Michigan and eastern Ohio; in the wealthy, well-educated, heavily Republican suburbs of Milwaukee and Cleveland; in the remote, rural towns of central Pennsylvania; and along the dusty desert highways of northern Arizona. When I say I’ve seen signs in these places, I don’t mean a couple small placards scattered here and there; I mean a conspicuous pattern of support, spread across areas where you wouldn’t expect to find it. And it hasn’t just been pro-Biden material; it’s been Black Lives Matter signs and LGBTQ rainbow flags and banners endorsing scientific expertise and women’s rights.
He also says that this year, despite the massive Republican efforts at voter suppression, we might witness a record turnout. Predictions of a record turnout are routinely made just before an election when feelings are running high but in my experience they usually don’t pan out. The last time the number of people who actually voted cracked 60% of the voting age population was in 1968. The highest since then was 2008 with 58%, Barack Obama’s first campaign. But Alberta thinks there are signs that this year will be different. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Alberta also warns that if Trump loses, it will not matter if he loses narrowly or by a large margin, because he is simply not going to go quietly. While a convincing loss will reduce Trump’s ability to claim that the result was fraudulent, Alberta says a landslide defeat for Trump will put the Republican Party establishment in a tough position.
If, on the other hand, the election is a blowout, and Trump is flinging wild accusations about wide-scale fraud and deep-state conspiracies to take him down, Republicans will be forced to choose a side. They will either stand with a battered soon-to-be-former president whose days in office are numbered whether he likes it or not, or they will stand with the democratic norms that have guided the nation for 244 years.
We are now on the home stretch. Expect more reading of tea leaves by pundits and analysts trying to find every possible indicator of the outcome.
IIUC, the 2016 polls were actually pretty accurate. The problem was that media pundits, who didn’t understand statistics, treated something like an 80% probability as a sure thing, which it isn’t.
For example, whenever they get a new batch of polls, 538 runs 40,000 simulations and reports on what they consider the 100 most representative. The last time I looked, Biden/Harris won 87 and Trump/Pence won 13. It’s entirely possible for Trump to win. It’s unlikely, but not so tremendously unlikely that we can be complacent and fail to vote.
Pierce R. Butler says
The local Democratic Party office -- when they finally re-opened -- reported no Biden-Harris signs available when I asked a week ago, maybe some at the end of this week. It also took me several tries, and a bit of lucky timing, to get a Clinton sign in ’16: it seems the Democratic Party “leadership” doesn’t believe much in yard signs, in typical disregard of their own grassroots.
Criticism of polling these days always mentions 2016, but (sfaik) never mentions the total and (sfaik) unexplained “Super Tuesday” Bernie Sanders turnout failure of this year -- which makes me worry that the pollsters and the progressives alike have not learned or changed sufficiently over the last seven months.
@2 have you considered that the Democratic Party is just a cunning ruse to prevent you from starting a *real* anti-Republican party?
Pierce R. Butler says
xohjoh2n @ # 3 -- No, because the Green Party USA already occupies that niche.
consciousness razor says
Yard signs? That’s … sad.
Sure, that’s definitely a part of it. Quoting Nate Silver from 2018:
However, there were some issues in 2016 with certain pollsters failing to weight their samples for education level, as well as incorrectly categorizing some people as “likely” or “unlikely” voters, biasing them in a way which looked good for Clinton. But even to this day, some folks blather about a large group of purported “shy” Trump voters, rather than stuff like that, which makes suspect they know almost nothing about Trump voters.
Some pollsters have apparently tried to correct for some of it now; but like you said, if people still act like 20% events don’t happen, they’ll talk as if they “fail to predict” such things whenever they do happen.
Pierce R. Butler, #2:
Well, I don’t know what you would consider a “turnout failure” on Super Tuesday. Sure, it would have been nice if Sanders had gotten more in some important states like MA, MN, NC, VA….. But I’m just going to mention a couple of things that have nothing to do with bad polling:
(1) There’s been a pandemic that you might have heard something about.
(2) Establishment Dems rallied behind Biden, after his entirely predictable win in South Carolina and the endorsement of Jim Clyburn. (Of course, we’re very unlikely to win SC in the general election, but apparently nobody cares about that.) Buttigieg and Klobuchar immediately dropped out, while Warren (a notional “progressive”) did not. Along with Beto, and with a bit of prodding from Obama, they all endorsed Biden. Steyer had also dropped out of the race after SC. Almost everyone hates Bloomberg (who by the way dropped out the day after Super Tuesday and endorsed Biden), so the options for the conservative/do-nothing faction of Dems had narrowed in just a few days to one candidate, Biden. They finally received the message from on high that he was “most electable,” so they went with him.
I do think Sanders should’ve been much more critical of Biden from the beginning. That was a big strategic mistake for his campaign, and trying to counteract the entire Democratic machine in such a short period of time (as well as our “journalists” and the punditry, who were desperately hoping for anybody but Sanders) is asking for too much I think.
But the idea that none of what I mentioned above would have a significant effect is just silly.
Pierce R. Butler says
consciousness razor @ # 5: There’s been a pandemic that you might have heard something about.
Funny how that scared off so many Sandersistas and so few Bidenites, eh?
And yes, most of the other candidates did endorse Biden after he won in South Carolina -- but I never got the impression that many Sanders fans were just waiting for Klobuchar or O’Rourke to tell them what to do. How many followed the Democratic bellwethers, and how many just flaked out?
consciousness razor says
For one thing, they’re different groups, so a disparity like that wouldn’t be implausible anyway.
But the idea is supposed to be that Sanders might deliver higher turnout. You think this is supposed to be in the Democratic primaries, specifically (which obviously is not the general election), meaning groups of people who don’t already show up to primaries very much.
I think it was actually about the general election, versus Trump. However, even with what you’re saying, that’s not relevant to Biden’s campaign, because his strategy doesn’t depend on higher turnout among those same people. Instead, he’s looking for the same old “blue no matter who” types the Dems can typically rely on, especially those who liked Obama, those who are comfortable with doing basically nothing good for the country for at least four more years. And beyond that, converts from the Republican party who dislike Trump and are perfectly happy with a conservative like Biden. What’s clear is that we’re definitely not talking about disaffected youths, Hispanic voters, or others who are traditionally given little attention by most campaigns.
Why the hell would you make this about “Sanders fans”? I was talking about coordination among large groups of people who are not “fans.”
Nobody ever said that the primary would be a breeze, with practically all the Dem voters acting like his “fans,” because you know that’s complete horseshit. I was genuinely surprised (like a lot of other supporters I think) that he got as much support as he did in 2016, because most Dems are not as comfortable with the left as they like to believe.
I think he was too committed to playing nice with the party establishment (and his “friend” Joe Biden), but from my point of view, both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns were more successful than I had expected them to be. Did you really think it was going to be easier for us? What made you think that? Or what exactly are you trying to say about turnout and polling?
You should ask yourself that question. Where are your numbers again? I see zero numbers. You’re the one who claimed he didn’t get a good turnout, which according to you is supposed to be about the primaries and not the general. But maybe don’t claim that until you know what you’re talking about.
Pierce R. Butler says
consciousness razor@ # 7: Why the hell would you make this about “Sanders fans”?
Because the topic at hand concerns polling failures -- and the sudden crash of the Sanders campaign came as a surprise to pro and amateur alike, which the pros show no sign of having learned from, thereby weakening my confidence in their numbers now.
Pierce R. Butler says
See this search for Bernie Sanders polling February 2020.
The pollsters counted a lot of noses that never made it to the booths on March 3, 2020. Have they identified and corrected their error(s) now?
consciousness razor says
Not helpful. Give me a specific state poll and compare it to an actual result in that state. Then you have something to talk about.
The first search result for me was about a national poll, not a state poll or specifically the Super Tuesday states. Next is the wiki page for the Sanders campaign. Then a youtube video which seems to be about a New Hampshire poll — didn’t watch it, but he won in NH so I won’t bother.
Finally something that looks relevant… Bloomberg news reports of a “commanding lead” with 32% in California. Sanders actually got 35.97% in California, which is bigger than 32%. That’s something, isn’t it?
Then another about a national poll. Then an article from Vox (a total joke) which is about how “secure” his position supposedly is, based on a national poll, conducted online. Who would’ve guessed. An article from Breitbart. Then Sanders wins in NH. Then Sanders announces something about fundraising. Then a Business Insider headline claims Sanders is “flatlining in 2020 polls,” which hardly sounds optimistic.
Do i need to keep going? Or would you like to slog through all of this crap yourself?
Pierce R. Butler says
consciousness razor @ # 10: Give me a specific state poll …
Do you dispute that Sanders went into “Super Tuesday” with a double-digit polling lead and was toast that Wednesday?
I can understand why Bernie and his movement don’t want to revisit that day, and why Biden doesn’t, and why the polling companies themselves prefer to “look forward, not backward” (at least in public) -- but I don’t see why you deride the relevance of that polling fiasco in present context, or want to nitpick about specific numbers.
The usual news sources don’t do very well at after-the-fact figures, but Wikipedia has a summary of 2020 Democratic primary results.
The first state-specific poll in the results which DuckDuckGo shows me (a different batch than what you reporting seeing) is Pennsylvania, which showed Sanders at 25%, Biden at 20%, and Bloomberg at 19% circa Feb 23. They didn’t vote until June 2nd (3 months after Super Tues), when Biden took 79% and Sanders 17%. I did not see any state-level polls specific to March 3 in the first few pages of DDG finds -- it seems the media didn’t see the point in such breakdowns then, so maybe they did learn at least that much from their stumbles this spring.
I’m sure there are shy Trump voters in my area because so far I have seen zero Trump yard signs, but I do see one sign for Loren Culp (Republican candidate for governor) and there are plenty of reports on Biden/Harris signs being stolen or vandalized.