Will Biden-Harris Outperform Polling? There's Reason to Hope.

Photo credit: Joe Biden for President.

National polls show Joe Biden and Kamala Harris comfortably leading Donald Trump and Mike Pence, and convention bump Republicans were hoping for never materialized if you set aside polling firms with a soothe-the-orange-man’s-ego bias. Swing state polls are closer, but they too consistently show Biden leading almost across the board.

The searing memory of 2016, however, will not let Democrats get comfortable, and that’s a good thing. Hillary Clinton led the national polls against Donald Trumps consistently, and even most swing state polls, but Trump ended up drawing an inside straight on his way to winning the presidency through the electoral college despite Clinton winning 3 million more votes.

Considering all that, it’s not difficult to see why Democrats sweat. For one thing, Trump outperformed his polls in swing states in 2016, a phenomenon many experts attribute to ‘silent’ Trump voters, people who will not tell pollsters or their social circles that they want to vote for Trump but will mark MAGA on their ballots.

Another top source of worry for Democratic voters and pundits alike comes from the drop in turnout among Democratic constituencies and geographies for Hillary Clinton compared to Barack Obama’s runs in 2012 and 2008. Yet another legitimate concern centers around the spoiler campaigns of third party candidates; indeed, the Green Party is in the Wisconsin Supreme Court at this very moment trying to keep Wisconsinites from voting by mail.

I believe that while these fears are legitimate, much of the dialogue has neglected specific antidotes to 2016, as well as some fundamental ways in which 2020 is different from 2016.

Donald Trump is not unique in this election as someone with a history of outperforming polls. Joe Biden outperformed in nearly every Democratic primary contest since South Carolina, which he also won by a greater margin than polls had predicted. By Super Tuesday, the anti-Sanders left had coalesced around Biden for certain, but still no one had predicted that Biden would not only come out with a delegate lead from Super Tuesday but draw his own inside straight through victories in states that had looked Sanders country just 24-48 hours prior like Massachusetts, Maine, and Texas. Biden won states he never visited during the primary, and he won delegates in Sanders’s home state of Vermont, something Hillary Clinton had failed to do four years earlier.

A week later, Biden handily won the Michigan primary, something Bernie Sanders had managed to do against expectations in 2016. The race was called early, and Biden won Michigan with 53% of the vote, having averaged only 37% in polls just days before the primary.

Biden wrapped up the primary way earlier in the cycle than Clinton had.

Not only did Biden outperform his polling consistently, Bernie Sanders - the leftist with a populist appeal much like Trump’s - significantly underperformed among key constituencies that had backed him against Hillary Clinton. While Sanders made major gains among Latinos, his Black support was at or below his anemic 2016 levels, and he hemorrhaged white support to Biden by large margins. Whereas Clinton had outmanuevered Sanders with a coalition of Democratic voters of color while narrowly losing the white Democratic primary vote to Sanders, Biden reversed those fortunes. Sanders also famously failed to back up his campaign narrative of youth enthusiasm as the increased turnout in 2020 primaries came from older voters and buoyed Biden.

Something of a similar story is playing out in the general election polling at this moment. In poll after poll, Joe Biden is fighting Trump to a draw among white voters and even inching ahead in a few. Almost unseen in modern political history, Biden’s strength among white voters is being complimented among his command among voters over 65, another constituency no Democrat has won in this century. In Florida, over-65s are making up for what appears to be a significant drop in support for the Democratic ticket among Florida Hispanics compared to Clinton’s margin in 2016.

Needless to say that if Biden closes the gap among white voters while holding onto a Black voter lead somewhere between that of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, November will be a bloodbath for Republicans. If Biden can maintain Clinton level support among Latinos, we are likely looking at an early night.

Joe Biden is also in that rare political position of being more financially flush than a Republican incumbent for the White House, and for this, much credit goes to the indomitable Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate. The Biden-Harris campaign and DNC shattered all fundraising records when in August they raised $365 million, a figured that dwarfed the Trump/RNC August figure by more than $150 million. The Trump campaign has also blown through $800 million this year, and that helps.

But the massive fundraising haul does more than allow Biden-Harris to make large and smart investments in swing states. It indicates that Democratic constituencies - and some constituencies not traditionally Democratic but disgusted by Trump are motivated, excited, and active.

This is a potentially huge difference from 2016. Although I and others went to bat for Hillary Clinton, who will always be a hero for me, there is no avoiding the fact that due to a 30-year character assassination by the national media, Clinton’s favorability was low, and combined with Russian propaganda, it helped depress turnout in key swing states. Joe Biden does not simply have lower negatives, but just as critically, those who dislike both Trump and Biden are breaking for Biden, whereas in 2016, those who disliked both candidates broke substantially for Trump.

2020 has another unique advantage (although that’s hardly the word to use) that Donald Trump has been president for four years. Disaffected voters who believed that there was no way Trump could get elected and they didn’t “like” either candidate now know Trump can get elected, and they know what happens when he does. Those voters are far less likely to play roulette by sitting out the election or voting third party.

All of this is resulting in Biden’s lead being more than twice as large as Clinton’s as well as far more stable, and the caution exercised by pollsters to account for Trump’s overperformance may in fact end up underestimating Biden’s numbers. It may well be the case that 2020 is a continuation of the trends we saw in 2018, rather than a repeat of the anomaly of 2016.

I also believe there is going to be a marginal but significant boost to the Democratic ticket from voters in the Asian, South Asian, and Caribbean diaspora stemming from the choice of Kamala Harris as the Vice Presidential nominee in some critical battlegrounds, a phenomenon I plan on addressing in a future post.

None of this should give anyone cause to celebrate a premature victory, and no one I know of is taking their foot off the gas because of Biden’s strong poll numbers. But it is important to understand that we do not have to be consumed by the fear of 2016.