A Polling Comparison

By Jim Ellis

Neck-and-neck polling in a few key battleground states between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden shows interesting parallels to the 2016 race between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Sept. 10, 2020 — With a plethora of presidential polls being released every week providing sometimes radically diverse results, it is often difficult to draw a clear picture of where the electorate is heading.

The conventional wisdom and preponderance of polling trends suggest that Joe Biden is leading the presidential race, but that President Trump is making a comeback, and the race is beginning to show some of the same characteristics found in 2016.

Three of the key states that baffled the political pollsters four years ago were Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. As we will remember, President Trump was expected to lose them all but scored close upset victories in each place.

The aggregate group of 2016 pollsters missed in each of the three states and the Real Clear Politics polling archives still publicly maintains all of those survey results. Therefore, we have the historical data to draw clear parallels between then and now.

In Wisconsin, 33 polls were taken during the election cycle and only one, from the Trafalgar Group at the end of the campaign season, placed Trump in front. A total of 62 polls were conducted in Pennsylvania with only three, again including a Trafalgar poll, projecting the future president into the lead. In Michigan, 42 polls were publicly released with Trump ahead in just two.

Though it is not generally statistically significant to average polling results because the polling methodologies, and certainly sample sizes, are very different, doing so does give us a guide as to the error factor that was present in 2016, and possibly a glimpse into what might exist this year.

In Wisconsin, the average Hillary Clinton lead advancing into the general election was 6.5 percentage points. With a 0.7 percent win for Trump, the overall error factor became a whopping 7.2 percent. The Pennsylvania numbers were closer but still a significant miss. Clinton’s average lead heading into Election Day was 2.1 percent and the president won there by the same 0.7 percent that he carried Wisconsin. Therefore, the Keystone State error factor was 2.8. Michigan was a similar story. Error factor: Clinton plus-3.6 percent. Trump victory margin: just 0.3. Total Michigan error factor: 3.9.

These numbers may help explain exactly where the election stands today. Assuming that the “shy Trump voter” figure, as it is currently described – meaning those people voting for Trump but won’t admit so publicly – is again present and similar to what we saw in 2016, although many people believe there are more in this election, we can possibly begin to look at these important Great Lakes States through a different prism.

Using the past error factors, let’s calculate where President Trump and Joe Biden stand in the three states, and also compare them to where Trump and Clinton stood in early September 2016 in order to gauge what might be a swing factor toward the end. This is merely a guide because the issue set and external factors that could influence voting is much different today than it was four years ago. This exercise, however, does provide us a pattern that could conceivably unfold in the campaign’s final weeks.

• 2016 Error Factor: 3.9
• Current Standing: Biden +3.2 from six polls taken July 26-Sept. 6
• Standing in Early September 2016: Clinton +6.2 from five polls between
Aug. 9-Sept. 13

• 2016 Error Factor: 2.8
• Current Standing: Biden +4.3 from six polls taken Aug. 25-Sept. 7
• Standing in Early September 2016: Clinton +7.3 from seven polls between
Aug. 3-Sept. 16

• 2016 Error Factor: 7.2
• Current Standing: Biden +6.4 from five polls taken Aug. 29-Sept. 6
• Standing in Early September 2016: Clinton +6.25 from four polls between
Aug. 4-Sept. 18

Therefore, if the error factor becomes similar to what we saw in 2016, then despite trailing in the polling within these three states, the data extrapolation suggests that Trump is again positioned to carry two of these three states, Michigan and Wisconsin, and is getting into range to possibly overtake Biden in Pennsylvania.

Does this rudimentary model mean that President Trump will again win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania? It does not. But it does say that the president remains competitive as we enter the campaign’s final 54 days, and it is important to remember that he would need to carry only one of these three if his southern tier base of Arizona, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida remains intact. Therefore, the end to this 2020 campaign has clearly not yet been written.

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