By Jim EllisApril 23, 2020 — It is interesting to revert back to April of 2016 to see just how Donald Trump was faring against Hillary Clinton and compare those results with today’s survey research. Thanks to the Real Clear Politics website and their polling archives, the day-by-day polling data from four years ago is still available so we can track the Trump-Clinton campaign historical progress with the new Trump-Joe Biden impending national contest.
The key point to remember about national presidential polling is that the aggregate ballot test means very little yet is the subject of most political research studies. Knowing what voters think about the campaign in places like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin is much more important when attempting to project a final outcome, but we see far fewer numbers coming from these places than we do nationally.
In 2016, we will remember that almost all analysts and political prognosticators were predicting a Clinton win, and virtually all national polling was revealing an advantage for the former secretary of state, US senator, and First Lady, yet Trump emerged the winner. After the election, most surface analysis reported that the polling was in error, but such was not generally the case. The preponderance of polling, which predicted a narrow Clinton popular vote victory was actually correct; as we will remember, Clinton finished ahead of Trump in a close plurality.
With this background in mind, let’s look at what the various polling firms are projecting this month for the Trump-Biden race and compare it to the available data from 2016.
In April 2016, through the 15th of the month, three national polls had been released from individual or collaborating media entities: CBS News (April 8-12), NBC News/Wall Street Journal (April 10-14), and Fox News (April 11-13). This year, we see a more active April polling month that yields nine studies from eight different pollsters.
In 2016, the three testing entities all predicted Hillary Clinton to be holding the advantage over Donald Trump, by margins of 10 (CBS), 11 (NBC/WSJ), and 7 (Fox) percentage points. A little over six months later, Clinton would carry the national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points but lose the presidency because the key states broke toward Trump, which added up to an Electoral College win.
This year, we see a similar pattern emerging for former vice president, Joe Biden. Of the nine April 2020 polls, seven project a Biden lead of between four and eight percentage points. Two are outliers. The CNN survey (April 3-6; 87 registered US voters) finds the Biden advantage to be 11 points. On the other hand, the Fox News Poll (April 4-7; 1,10 registered US voters) forecasts that the former vice president and current president are deadlocked in a 42-42 percent tie.
Discarding the high and low outliers, the six April pollsters (Quinnipiac University; CNBC; The Economist/YouGov (two polls); Monmouth University; Harvard University-Harris Poll; and NBC/Wall Street Journal) actually find Trump polling significantly closer to Biden (trailing between four and eight points) than was his standing in April of 2016 against Hillary Clinton, who held a high/low advantage of between eight and 11 points.
As mentioned above, the better predictor of the national outcome is to monitor how the candidates are performing in key specific states. If we look at available polling in Trump’s five core states (geographically from west to east) of Arizona, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida, we see competitive battles forming in each. Only in Arizona, however, is the president currently trailing.
The five states are critically important to Trump winning the national election. As previously stated in earlier Updates, holding all five of these entities makes the president’s path to re-election easier in that he needs to take only one of the swing Great Lakes states. Should Biden break through in any one of the five Trump core states, and Arizona today looks to be the most likely to flip, he quickly becomes the definitive favorite to win the national election.
While tracking national polling is relatively easy and provides a sense as to the campaign’s direction, it is the key state data that will determine the actual winner just as we so clearly saw in 2016. Therefore, our coverage of this campaign will be paying close attention to the aforementioned states and disregarding most of the national ballot test results that will be routinely published.