Biden leads Trump, but can polls be trusted this year?

By: AFP      Published: 01:59 PM, 18 Oct, 2020
Biden leads Trump, but can polls be trusted this year?

Donald Trump's victory in the US presidential election four years ago brought into question as never before the reliability of opinion polls. Can they be believed this time around?

- What do the polls say? -

With 16 days to go before the November 3 election, Democrat Joe Biden is ahead of the Republican president by 9.0 percentage points nationally, according to polling averages from the RealClearPolitics website.

But in the United States, candidates win the White House not through the popular vote, but with the Electoral College. 

In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, but won enough states to garner the electoral votes needed to become president. 

This year, six states are seen as key to winning the White House: Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

But if the polls are correct, Biden also has the advantage there, although he is at times within the margin of error, ranging from 1.7 percentage points ahead in Florida to 7.2 in Michigan.

- Where were the errors in 2016? -

The polls on the eve of the vote correctly predicted a slight national lead for Clinton, but "the place where the polls missed were in some of those Midwestern swing states" that Trump eventually won, Chris Jackson of Ipsos Public Affairs told AFP.

He said under-representation within polling samples of white residents without college degrees who voted for Trump was among the causes.

Most polling institutes say they've corrected their methodology to preclude such mistakes this time around.

Battleground states under-polled last time have been surveyed much more closely and more often.

Beyond that, pollsters note consistency: Since the spring, Biden has been ahead with an average lead which has never fallen below four percentage points.

As a comparison, the Trump-Clinton polling lines crossed twice, signalling an uncertain race.

Finally, in a country extremely polarized, there are far fewer undecided voters susceptible of altering the contest at the last minute.

- Are there reticent Trump voters? -

Some feel that there are Trump voters reticent to tell pollsters they prefer him given the controversy that surrounds the president.

"The polls were wrong last time, and they're more wrong this time," Trump has said.

Trafalgar Group, a polling institute favored by Republicans that seeks to employ a methodology to account for the possibility of reticence, had been one of the few in 2016 to predict Trump winning Pennsylvania and Michigan.

This time, however, even they give the advantage to Biden in crucial states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Four years ago, the businessman and political newcomer was a novelty, and such candidates are always difficult for pollsters to assess.

"Everyone sort of has an opinion about him now, so there's just not quite the same level of surprise in Donald Trump," said Jackson.

- But what if ...? -

The New York Times has calculated that, even if the current polls, state by state, are as wrong as they were four years ago, Biden would still win.

"Mr. Biden is closer in our poll average to winning Texas, which would get him over 400 electoral votes, than President Trump is to winning in traditional battleground states like Pennsylvania and Nevada," the paper's Nate Cohn wrote recently.

- Do uncertainties remain? -

Pollsters and analysts are still careful to note that voters' intentions are not a prediction and that there is still a margin of error.

Campaigns can be dynamic, with the last presidential election probably decided in the home stretch. 

With 16 days to go in 2016, the FiveThirtyEight site gave Clinton an 86 percent chance for victory, nearly the same as Biden now.

In the United States, voter registration varies enormously, which makes it especially difficult to predict turnout.

Trump points to enthusiastic crowds at his rallies to argue that momentum is on his side, but will that translate at the ballot box?

Will Democrats who were not overly enthusiastic for Clinton, who was viewed initially as having won in advance, line up behind a middle-of-the-road Biden to chase out Trump?

And what effect will the pandemic have?

"We have mail-in voting and early voting which are going to be at historic levels," said Jackson.

"We don't know the effect that's going to have. There's a lot of really complicating factors that are entering into it that are the kind of things that are hard for polls to account for."

 - Trump sets pace, Biden stays home -

President Donald Trump campaigned at a frenetic pace Saturday in a three-state trip that started with a Michigan rally where he called opponent Joe Biden a "criminal" and pounded his claim that the Democrats are anti-American.

Addressing a rally in Muskegon, Michigan, Trump focused on US culture war themes, telling a large cheering crowd that the Democrats wanted to "erase American history, purge American values and destroy the American way of life."

And he ramped up his increasingly intense attempt to paint Biden as corrupt, pushing the same conspiracy theory that led to his impeachment last year and a new, murky report in the New York Post that purports to reveal evidence of corruption by Biden's son Hunter.

"Joe Biden is a corrupt politician and the Biden family is a criminal enterprise," Trump said to more cheers.

"He's a criminal, he's committed crimes," he said. "He's a national security risk."

Trump -- who was impeached for allegedly abusing his office in an attempt to find dirt on Biden, and later acquitted -- had the campaign trail all to himself just 17 days before the election.

- Frantic vs low key -

He flew on to Wisconsin, a state in the bull's eye of a resurgent US coronavirus spread, where he told jubilant supporters in Janesville: "I did this for us, not for me, believe me."

Trump was ending the day in Las Vegas, Nevada, and will hold another rally in Carson City on Sunday.

"President Trump's strategy is to work for the vote of the American people," his spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said on Fox News. 

"It's why he'll be in two states today, he'll have two rallies tomorrow, two more in Arizona on Monday, and he's going all in."

Biden, who has run a strikingly low-key campaign yet leads in strings of polls, stayed home in Delaware with no public events. He was due to campaign in North Carolina on Sunday.

The Republican incumbent, who only got out of the hospital two weeks ago after falling ill with Covid-19, is planning to keep up the pace throughout the final stretch of the campaign, with almost daily rallies, in hope that his hardcore base will turn out in huge numbers.

The enthusiasm was evident on Saturday. The crowd shouted "we love you" and, with Trump's encouragement, chanted "lock her up" in reference to Michigan's Democratic governor -- the recent target of a right-wing kidnap plot.

Closing after 90 minutes, Trump remained on stage briefly to dance to the sounds of Village People's "YMCA."

- Covid, what Covid? -

Conspicuously absent in his stump speech is any real discussion of the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 219,000 Americans, with more than eight million infected, and is spreading again at rates not seen for months.

Polls show that an overwhelming majority does not approve of Trump's erratic handling of the pandemic. This has veered from the record-speed push for a vaccine to the president's constant claims that the coronavirus poses little risk and his repeated downplaying of the need to wear masks.

Biden has made this record the center of his campaign, promising to bring what he terms more sober, less politicized leadership to the national crisis.

Biden issued a statement Saturday saying that "President Trump is knowingly downplaying the severity of the virus."

"At virtually every turn, he has panicked and tried to wish it away, rather than doing the hard work to get it under control," Biden said.

- Can Trump catch up? -

Trump likes to say that his packed rallies are evidence of strength not reflected in "fake" election polls. He also points out that in 2016 few believed he could beat the apparently solid frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

But other than barnstorming the country and hoping that his new push to smear Biden will stick, he has little leverage to shift the dynamics of a race that for weeks has shown consistent advantages for the Democrat.

One chance will be the final televised debate between the candidates on Thursday. However, more than 21 million Americans have already cast ballots in unprecedented early voting, meaning that the election is already in the process of being decided.

And while Biden is running a much quieter campaign, there was evidence Saturday of popular energy on the Democratic side when thousands of people protested in Washington and other cities against the rapid Republican confirmation of Trump's latest conservative pick for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett.

Some Republicans, including Trump ally Senator Ted Cruz, have warned of a major defeat on November 3.

But Biden's campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley Dillon said in a Saturday memo reported by The New York Times that the race is far closer than many realize.

"This race is far closer than some of the punditry we're seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest," she wrote, the Times reported. "In the key battleground states where this election will be decided, we remain neck and neck with Donald Trump."