Don’t Fight the Last Battle
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
I made a mistake.
A few days ago, I went back and watched a video with my analysis of the presidential race just a couple weeks before Election Day 2016. I’ll spare you the few minutes (and having to gaze at my greasy hair) and tell you that I was not projecting Donald Trump would win.
Now, this is not a revelation to me. I’ve done plenty of reflection about that result ever since it happened. But it was striking to watch and listen to the words come out of my mouth almost simultaneously with our analysis of the 2020 elections.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has the advantage in this race.
Maybe I’m not supposed to say it because of what happened four years ago, but that is the most honest, data-driven assessment of the race right now. While 2016 still gives me pause when making an election projection, that event is not enough to stop me from making projections based on data.
The easiest thing to do to avoid repeating the flawed analysis of 2016 is to call this presidential race a toss-up. It would also be disingenuous, a disservice to readers, and in opposition to the preponderance of the data.
Analysis of polling at the national, state, and district level, point to a Biden victory, Democrats winning control of the Senate, and Democrats expanding their majority in the House. That doesn’t mean President Trump can’t win or Republicans definitely won’t hold the Senate majority. Those just aren’t the most likely outcomes.
Sure, it’s possible that the polling is off. It’s possible that dozens of pollsters (partisan and nonpartisan), independent of each other, are making the same methodological mistake in the same direction. I just don’t believe it’s the most likely scenario.
To be clear, our analysis isn’t just based on surveys conducted by Democrats or by media outlets. In most races, GOP polls paint a similar, sometimes only slightly rosier, picture of a very difficult set of elections for the president’s party.
The conversation about Trump’s 2016 victory too often ignores his narrow margin of victory in the most critical states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The president has been governing and operating with very little margin for error for the last three-and-a-half years. And he’s simply failing to recapture his 2016 magic and match his performance of four years ago.
In the vast majority of states with a competitive Senate race and in districts hosting a competitive House race, Trump is underperforming where he was four years ago by five to seven points or more. It’s not just a dynamic in suburban districts where Republicans have struggled for the last few years, it’s in solidly GOP states and districts. Places where the president will win again but not by nearly the same margin.
Particularly after the 2016 presidential election, and considering the broader challenges with the polling industry, it’s healthy to be at least somewhat skeptical of survey data. Although polling, even with its imperfections, is still the best way to analyze races.
A willful decision to discount and discard polling data leaves analysis to a tenuous set of anecdotes, Twitter followers, boat parades and other qualitative data. I certainly won’t take it personally if people want to do that. But I’d much rather gather as much data as possible, look for the trend, and make the best projection possible, understanding that sometimes data can be flawed or that the less likely outcome happens sometimes.
Rather than 2020 being a replay of 2016, the country’s collective shock from Trump’s unexpected victory could be causing us to miss a much bigger story. Rather than the president being poised for another win, Republicans could be facing debilitating losses up and down the ballot. In fact, the Democratic wipeout might even be more likely than a Trump re-election win. Once again, I write that somewhat nervously, but it’s not out of line with the data.
Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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