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Should We Take These Early General Election Polls Seriously? $#!% No!

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll of the week

A lot of people are talking about hypothetical 2020 general election polls, including the president of the United States.

A national Quinnipiac University poll released this week, for example, showed Joe Biden with a 53-40 lead against President Trump. But it wasn’t just Biden — all the Democratic contenders Quinnipiac included in matchups with Trump were significantly ahead of the president: Bernie Sanders 51-42, Kamala Harris 49-41, Elizabeth Warren 49-42, Cory Booker 47-42 and Pete Buttigieg 47-42. Meanwhile, in an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump dismissed any polls that showed him trailing the Democrats.1 “No, my polls show that I’m winning everywhere,” Trump said.

So, just how seriously should we take hypothetical general election polls more than a year out and before the Democratic nominee has been selected?

Not seriously.

In the runup to the 2016 presidential election, this same question came up, and FiveThirtyEight analyzed general election polls from 1944 to 2012 that tested the eventual nominees and were conducted in the last two months of the year before the election (so for 2012, that would be November and December of 2011). On average, these polls missed the final result by 11 percentage points.2

Polling Accuracy A Year Before The Election
Election Average GOP Poll Lead GOP Election Margin Absolute Error
1964 -50.3 -22.6 27.7
1992 +21.0 -5.6 26.1
1980 -15.5 +9.7 25.2
2000 +11.9 -0.5 12.4
1984 +7.2 +18.2 11.0
1988 +18.0 +7.7 10.3
2008 -0.3 -7.3 6.9
1956 +22.0 +15.4 6.6
1944 -14.0 -7.5 6.5
2004 +8.7 +2.5 6.2
1996 -13.0 -8.5 4.5
1960 +3.0 -0.2 3.2
2012 -2.8 -3.9 1.0
1948 -3.8 -4.5 0.7
Average 10.6

The last presidential election featured one of the more accurate sets of early polls for this point in the cycle: Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump 46.2 percent to 41.2 percent in an average of all polls conducted in November and December 2015, missing the eventual national popular vote margin by about 3 points.3 (The actual result was Clinton 48.0 percent, Trump 46.0 percent.)

But that’s more the exception than the rule, as the table above shows. And remember, these are polls conducted at least five months later in the cycle than where we are now. Jump back to roughly this point in the 2016 cycle, for example, and Clinton was ahead of all eight of her hypothetical GOP opponents in a May 2015 Quinnipiac poll, with a whopping 50-32 advantage over Trump.

There’s just soooo much that can and will change. To take the two biggest ones: Democrats have an entire primary to get through and a nominee to pick. And we really have no idea what the economy will look like by Election Day 2020.

OK, maybe you’re not shocked that very early general election polling isn’t particularly predictive. Do these numbers tell us anything at all? Maybe. I think they hint at two things.

First, the Republican Party under Trump has had a ceiling so far — and it’s south of 50 percent of American voters. The president won 46 percent of the vote in 2016. House Republicans won 45 percent of the national House vote in 2018. Trump’s approval rating for the past two years has been between 37 percent and 43 percent. I doubt that Trump will get just 42 percent of the national vote (and most other national polls pitting him against the Democratic candidates have him in the mid-40s). At the same time, it’s pretty hard right now to see Trump getting the majority of the electorate behind him.

That doesn’t mean he can’t win. But Trump may need, like in 2016, to overperform in the Electoral College relative to the popular vote and for third-party candidates (perhaps Justin Amash or Howard Schultz) to take some of the anti-Trump vote from the Democratic nominee.

Secondly, this poll is more evidence that Trump should probably spend less time courting his political base and more time appealing to voters outside of it. He’s getting more than 90 percent of the Republican vote in head-to-head matchups against these Democratic candidates (even against Biden), according to the Quinnipiac survey. And that’s consistent with other data. Gallup polling suggests that Trump’s approval rating among self-identified Republicans is around 90 percent. In the 2018 midterms, exit polls suggested that about 94 percent of self-identified Republicans backed the GOP House candidate, as did 88 percent of those who approve of President Trump.

Trump’s real political problem is self-identified independents and voters who don’t love him or hate him. In the 2018 midterms, independents broke heavily for the Democrats in U.S. House elections (+12), as did voters who “somewhat” disapproved of the president (+29), according to exit polls. In this Quinnipiac survey, all the Democratic candidates had double digit leads over Trump among independents, and those are the numbers that should worry the president and his political team.

Other polling bites

  • 63 percent of Americans favor allowing transgender people to serve in the U.S. military, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey released this week.
  • According to a new Monmouth University poll, Biden leads among Democratic presidential candidates with 36 percent of the vote in Nevada, which votes third in the Democratic nomination process. Warren (19 percent) and Sanders (13 percent) are the only other two candidates polling in double digits.
  • 79 percent of Iowa Democrats said that to get their vote, a Democratic presidential candidate must support “a woman’s right to abortion,” according to a recently released by Selzer & Co. for the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa poll; 12 percent said that position was not a must-have.
  • In the same poll, 23 percent of Iowa Democrats said that a candidate must support offering all Americans free tuition to a public four-year college; 15 percent said they would oppose a candidate who took that position.
  • 33 percent of Americans favor Congress starting impeachment proceedings against Trump, compared with 61 percent who do not, according to a Quinnipiac survey released this week; 44 percent believe he “deserves to be impeached,” while 50 percent do not.
  • 72 percent of Americans oppose a proposal to increase the salaries of members of Congress by $4,500, compared with 14 percent who support the idea, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released this week. The proposal would have meant members’ salaries were $178,500 per year.
  • 49 percent of Americans support the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions, compared with 32 percent who oppose it, according to the Politico/Morning Consult survey.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.3 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.9 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.6 points). At this time last week, 41.5 percent approved and 53.6 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -12.1 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.4 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.5 percent (for a net approval rating of -10.1 points).

Congressional generic ballot

According to FiveThirtyEight’s congressional generic ballot tracker — which returned this week! — about 46.1 percent of Americans would vote for a Democratic candidate for Congress, compared with 39.9 percent who would choose a Republican.

Check out the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections, including all the Democratic primary polls.

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, Trump seemed to be reacting to internal polling and a Quinnipiac survey of Texas voters.

  2. Elections not listed — 1952, 1968, 1972 and 1976 — did not have polling available for the period we’re looking at.

  3. This includes polls whose average field date was in November or December. Where polls released multiple samples, we used the most exclusive option available — that is, registered voters above adults and likely voters above registered voters.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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