What two high-quality polls tell us about the presidential race

Reliable surveys show Biden with steady lead

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during his 2020 campaign kickoff rally at the Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Pa., on Saturday, May 18, 2019.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during his 2020 campaign kickoff rally at the Eakins Oval in Philadelphia, Pa., on Saturday, May 18, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 21, 2020 at 12:22pm

ANALYSIS — Like other political analysts, I look at most national (and state) polls.

There are a few national surveys I don’t watch — Rasmussen and The Hill/HarrisX, for example — but I will look at the toplines and often the crosstabs of most other surveys. Some surveys get my full attention.

There are a lot of professionally done polls out there, but over the years, I haven’t been hesitant to offer particularly kind words about the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and the Fox News poll. They tend not to jump around wildly, which is fine with me since, barring a dramatic event, I don’t think public opinion jumps around wildly.

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Anyway, I thought I’d focus on the toplines of just those two polls to see what they might say about the presidential contest. My goal is to test the title of the July 20 edition of The Washington Post’s “The Daily 202” — “Biden’s lead is tighter than it seems.”

“The presidential campaign remains closer than top-line polling numbers suggest,” begins the piece.

There have been six Fox News polls and five NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys since late February, before COVID-19 grabbed all our attention. Here are the dates and the margins in the Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump ballot tests among registered voters:

Fox News polls

  • July 12-15            Biden +8
  • June 13-16            Biden +12
  • May 17-20            Biden +8
  • April 4-7                Tied
  • March 21-24         Biden +9
  • Feb. 23-26     Biden +8

NBC News/Wall Street Journal

  • July 9-12              Biden +11
  • May 28-June 2    Biden +7
  • April 13-15          Biden +7
  • March 11-13        Biden +9
  • Feb. 14-17     Biden +8

First, one poll jumps out. The April Fox News poll found the presidential race even, with both candidates getting 42 percent.

No other survey conducted around the same time showed the same movement or change in the race. Quinnipiac University (April 2-6) found Biden ahead by 8 points, while CNN (April 3-6) had the margin at 11 points. Monmouth University (April 3-7) had Biden ahead by 4 points, not much different than the 3-point lead it gave him in March.

So what’s with that Fox News poll? The answer is pretty simple. That early April survey was a clunker. Throw it out. It’s no big deal. It doesn’t undermine the credibility of other Fox News polls.

Every pollster has had a poll outside the margin of error, which is why professional political analysts warn about overly hyping one poll. As long as we treat the April Fox News survey as a clunker and don’t draw conclusions from it, we can move on.

The other five Fox News and five NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls tell an interesting story.

First, the race seems very stable. Voters aren’t surging to one candidate and then back to the other.

Fox News had an uptick in the margin in June, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal had one in its most recent poll. But these movements are well within the normal “noise” of a campaign, and it is possible that the June Fox News survey and the July NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reflect a worsening position for Trump.

Second, the presidential contest has been and still looks to be in the 7- to 10-point range — three, four or possibly even five times larger than the 2.1-point margin Hillary Clinton had in winning the popular vote almost four years ago.

Recent ABC News/Washington Post and Quinnipiac surveys of registered voters found the presidential contest had blown open, with Biden leading Trump by 15 points. But both of those surveys are at the upper end of the range of recent polls. Count me as skeptical that they offer the best picture of where the race now stands.

The RealClearPolitics polling average as of July 15 found Biden leading by 8.6 points — exactly in the middle of the 7- to 10-point range that the NBC News/Wall Street Journal and Fox News surveys suggested.

None of this tells us anything about the electoral votes, except for the fact that it is unlikely — very unlikely — that a candidate could lose the popular vote by 8 points and still win 270 electoral votes.

It is a good reminder, however, that if you are going to believe every number that you see, including that Biden is leading by 15 points, then maybe you need a warning by the always insightful Daily 202 writer James Hohmann that the presidential race is “closer than top-line polling numbers suggest.”

But if you keep your eye on the best polls and on the averages, you won’t need to be warned that the race is not already over.

You’ll know that Biden’s 7- to 10-point advantage is both remarkably stable over the long haul and nothing to be sneezed at. And you’ll also be waiting for the next round of surveys to look for clues about the future.