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Once again, why current polls tell us nothing about who’ll win the Dem nomination in 2020

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, posing before the start of the first 2020 Democratic candidates debate, are three of two dozen Democratic candidates for president.

I’ve suggested before (and still believe) that current polls tell us nothing of any serious value about who will win the Democratic nomination in 2020. I can’t stop looking at the polls, but that’s just a personal failing. I wrote recently about the one year I covered the Iowa caucus, the year of Howard Dean’s crash in Iowa (and no, it wasn’t because he screamed), which is a pretty good reminder that we won’t know the future until it stops being the future because it became the present.

So I laughed/cried at Paul Waldman’s recent Washington Post column, headlined “Here’s what the early Democratic primary polls really tell us,” in which he (without meaning to) gave the single best reason not to believe what the early Democratic primary polls tell us.

Right at the top, Waldman tells us that at this stage in the 2016 contest for the Republican nomination the polls showed “Jeb Bush leading the race, followed by Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson.”

The three Republican candidates who ended up being even slightly consequential in the late stages of the race were Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Get it? Zero of them were on the list of the early leaders, as determined by the pundits reading the polls. None of the four likeliest nominees to whom Waldman referred were even relevant at the end, or anywhere near the end.

We didn’t know then what would happen and we don’t know now, not even a list of four who, based on today’s (irrelevant) polls seem to be the leaders. Hug that point.

The same was about half true on the Democratic side in 2016, except that everyone knew that Hillary Clinton was a major contender. Bernie Sanders? Not so much. The punditocracy didn’t take him seriously. He ended up being among the strongest runners-up as any modern nomination contest has seen.

Moral of that story: We know nothing about who will be relevant at the end.

But having demonstrated that point, without stating it, Waldman goes back to a statement that the race for the 2020 Dem nomination comes down to Joe Biden, Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. How does he know this? Guess. The polls tell us that those four currently have the most support.

I’m willing to bet that somebody not on that list will be more relevant in the contest than at least one and possibly all four of those who are on that list.

Jeb Bush. Scott Walker. Marco Rubio. Ben Carson. They won zero primaries and/or caucuses in 2016, even though the pre-Iowa polls indicated they were the four to watch.

Apocryphally, at least, it was the sage Yogi Berra who summarized the problem: “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” He also gets credit for “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Whether he said them or not, they are brilliant, and he said them (or not) without reference to the polls.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/09/2019 - 09:46 am.

    Early polling is also an interesting illustration of the famous / infamous short attention span of the voting public.

  2. Submitted by michael goldner on 07/09/2019 - 09:47 am.

    While i believe Eric is correct about polling, at this stage, he fails to mention the other, much better predeictor, the number and slant of publisherd articles. While obviously not very substantively relevant, there is a long record that suggests the candidates who have the highest numberr of “positive” articles end up winning the primaries. Such is the power of the press and media. For those who are interested there is data.

  3. Submitted by Nathan Bowe on 07/09/2019 - 10:06 am.

    The 2016 Minnesota Republican caucus took place on March 1 in the U.S. state of Minnesota, during the Super Tuesday contests, as a part of the Republican Party’s series of presidential primaries. It is notable because it is the only state that was won by Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/09/2019 - 10:15 am.

    The comparison with the polling for 2016 is interesting, but the parallels with the polling today are limited. The essential difference between 2016 and 2019/2020 is that Donald Trump is President. In 2016, there was no incumbent to run against, or to mobilize opposition. Democratic voters, as well as many or most independents, have already made up their minds that they want Trump out of the White House, and there is a realistic, non-zero chance that he will not be re-elected. That gives the Democratic contest a different focus than the Republican race had in 2016.

    It is also, I think, significant that three of the four leading Democratic candidates are familiar to most voters. The new faces are making an impression, but with the exception of Senator Harris, they are all a ways back in the running.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/09/2019 - 02:50 pm.

    Because elections are held only every couple of years, the media need polls to fill in the news gap. The problem is polls are native news. They are news purchased by the media which wouldn’t otherwise exist if they weren’t financed by the media, directly or indirectly. They are a form of checkbook journalism.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/09/2019 - 06:48 pm.

    Where were Clinton and Carter at this stage of their races?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/10/2019 - 09:08 am.

      Apples and oranges. Clinton and Carter had approval ratings that fluctuated. Trump has never had their level of support.

      Also recall that Carter and Reagan were polling closely with each other until the failed rescue attempt in Iran.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/09/2019 - 06:54 pm.

    Of course, Yogi also said:
    “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

    He was in fact very intelligent — there aren’t a lot of dumb catchers and he called good games. Just the idiosyncratic grammar; in a class with his manager Casey Stengel.

    • Submitted by Henry Johnson on 07/10/2019 - 08:22 pm.

      Oh you have to be a genius to come up with the witty “dumb” expressions that Yogi came up with. They almost always evoked a laugh or a smile.

      And they’re often dumb in a wise kind of way, which sort of almost sounds like one of his sayings.. ;- )

      Here’s kind of a nice list of some of them, many of which I hadn’t heard, for example, “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours”.

      How can you top that kind of practical wisdom? ;- )

  8. Submitted by Alan Straka on 07/10/2019 - 02:01 pm.

    It isn’t just the early polls. If you looked at the polls right before the 2016 election you would have thought Clinton was a sure thing.

  9. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/10/2019 - 03:21 pm.

    Sometimes we learn the wrong lessons from the past. Early 2016 polling may have missed Bernie, specifically, but it did not miss 1) HRC as frontrunner and 2) anyone but HRC as a strong runner up.

    Similarly early 2020 polling accurately reflected name recognition of candidates, giving VP Biden a strong lead, followed by Bernie. It’s now confirming that the Biden support was soft (i.e. name recognition), and that other candidates are building support as they become more well know. It tells us there is a lot of support for non-moderate views. It tells us that being a white straight man is not as advantageous as it used to be.

    Is current polling predictive? No. But neither is it useless or pointless.

  10. Submitted by Henry Johnson on 07/10/2019 - 10:04 pm.

    Well, Eric’s right of course, we don’t know how the candidates will respond to upcoming events, and how they’ll handle themselves in general before Nov 2020, all of which is unknown.

    All I’ll say is that Trump’s reelection chances really, really shouldn’t be underestimated IMO.

    He has an absolutely massive war chest already, and more big contributions are assuredly coming, so he can afford to run political ads and social media and internet troll campaign’s with non-stop saturation for 6 months prior to Nov. 2020 I would htink..

    And he’ll undoubtedly use the ammunition being given to him right now in that saturation campaign by much of the democratic candidates, like the proposals for reparations, health care and free education for illegal immigrants, and all the other proposals that will raise strong doubts and concerns in the swing states, for use in his massive saturation campaign of TV ads, and social media/internet presence.

    And though I think he’s incompetent in many ways, he does obviously have great instincts on how to influence and energize many people, even people who have mostly voted democratic in the past, to vote for him, or he wouldn’t have come out of nowhere and won in 2020.

    It seems like right now, with a few exceptions, the front runners in the Democratic race are acting like all they have to do is prove they are the most liberal of all in order to win the Democratic nomination – there seems to be NO THOUGHT AT ALL BEING GIVEN to how what they are proposing and saying will affect the undecided voters who will be the key factor in the general election against Trump.

    The undecided voters in the swing states will decide the election, including a large group of independents, moderates, and even conservatives who are turned-off by Trump’s flaws – who are watching these debates and reading about the proposals being put forward.

    Those votes are up for grabs, but it doesn’t seem most of the democratic candidates are interested in winning them.

    It is because of those voters, who voted for moderate democrats in the 2018 elections, that the Democrats won back the house.

    The 2018 house victory was NOT a referendum from the public saying they want radical left-wing leadership, it was a vote for moderation and a vote against Trump’s excesses.

    AOC happened to win in 2018 also, in a district that was bound to go democratic anyway, but it’s not like there were 40 radical leftists elected, there were just a few very liberal and VERY VOCAL leftists like AOC elected in 2018.

    She’s made a splash, and get’s tons of media attention, but she was absolutely NOT the type of democratic candidate who gave the democrats back the house.

    That happened by flipping republican districts, by moderate democrats winning those seats.

    My concern is that if the Democratic candidates continue to act like all they have to do is to out-do each other with who has the most extreme socialist policy proposals, whoever wins the nomination then might look like the greater of two evils to far too many undecided voters in the swing states during the general election, and that that will cause a Trump victory (not to mention republican senate and house victories).

    I don’t think many of these left-wing proposals are going to be received well at all among the undecided voters in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Missouri, etc.

    These just are NOT super-liberal states, and as disappointing as it might be for some, IMO they can be won only by moderate democrats, who are more in tune with the beliefs of folks in their district, and are probably not going to be won by democrats making leftist proposals in the current Democratic candidate field.

    These undecided voters might say “Trump is an ego-tripper sure, I don’t like him all that much, but at least he’s not telling me we should spend 10 or 20 trillion dollars in reparations, and write off trillions in student loans (hey I have debt too, where’s my write-off?), let anyone who shows up at the border in and make them a citizen and give them free healthcare and free college education for their kids too probably.

    No, I guess I’ll stick with Trump, because these Democrats are just too far out there with all these proposals, and I don’t think they’re looking out for me, and I don’t they don’t represent me or my interests.”.

    Sadly, I think we are developing a polarized Fascist-Socialist two party system now, and I think the large undecided group in the middle are being mostly ignored by the Democratic party at this point.

    But unfortunately Trump will NOT be ignoring all those millions of independent, moderate, undecided voters – he’ll have experts leading a well thought-out media blitz using that big war chest to convince those very undecided voters that the Democrats are the spawn of Satan, and that he Trump is their only reasonable choice.

    Of course they will try to make that case no matter what the Democratic candidate field proposes, but currently, the left leaning candidates are making it SO, SO easy to make that case EFFECTIVELY in their republican campaigns.

    All they have to do is show video clips of all the leftist proposals being made by the eventual Democratic nominee, then play up or exaggerate the damaging effect of those proposals a bit where necessary, and a majority of those undecided voters will probably shake their heads and say “No, no, I’m not for THAT. I can’t vote democratic this time”.

    And as a result, a majority of those undecided voters may very likely vote for Trump, despite some misgivings that they have about him.

    (Just as I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, despite many misgivings about her).

    I hope that the Democratic field starts giving some thought to winning undecided voters and winning in the general election soon, otherwise, I’m concerned that we all may have to endure yet 4 more years of the orange “stable genius” in the white house, because he for sure will be seeking to win those undecided voters and their votes in the reelection campaign.

    And of course none of the left-wing proposals being made are going to be enacted into law without winning the presidency, the senate and holding on to the house.

    And there is a risk of losing all three in 2020 IMO, if the democratic party continues to ignore the general election and continues to treat with disdain and indifference those undecided voters that will decide the fate of all three in the 2020 election.

  11. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 07/11/2019 - 11:52 am.

    Rates of participation in polls are in the mud, rendering them meaningless.

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