I’ve been preaching for some time, and don’t intend to change this belief, that it’s a mistake to get too excited about the latest polling in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Any such poll is an imprecise measure (that’s why there’s always a plus-or-minus-several-percentage-points assigned to the fleeting, sure-to-change numbers). The question the pollsters ask is some version of “if the election were held today,” which it won’t be, and the results combine the thoughts and feelings of many citizens of varying likelihoods of voting, who are pay varying levels of attention to politics this far ahead of an election.
My biggest preachment is to keep an open mind and pay as much attention to a combination of who-seems-to-have-the-best-policy-ideas-and-track-record, plus, especially in the current emergency, who might be most likely to defeat Donald Trump, even though I also don’t trust anyone’s ability to know much about that last question. It’s hard not to get sucked into paying too much attention to another set of poll numbers, the ones claiming to tell us who matches up the best against Trump “if the election were held today” when in fact Election Day is still 15 months away.
For the last many months, most polls have indicated that former Vice President Joe Biden is well ahead of the rest of the field, and that he matches up the best against Trump. My own life spent observing politics tells me the polls can’t tell us who’s the most electable nominee, nor how the election is going to come out, and especially not this far ahead.
Anyway, I’ve just wasted four paragraphs leading up to telling you about one recent result from a fairly reputable pollster that breaks that consistent pattern of showing Biden ahead. And I’ll tell you about it as soon as I remind you again that it’s just one poll, the other major polls don’t agree with it, and even if they all agreed it still wouldn’t tell us what’s going to happen. Now then:
The latest Monmouth University poll shows a three-way tie for the lead in the race for the Democratic nomination between Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In fact, it’s not exactly a three-way tie. Monmouth’s poll shows Warren and Sanders each at 20 percent and Biden at 19. That one-point difference is especially meaningless and easily covered by any margin-for-error, and this poll has a 5.7-percentage-point margin.
And the Monmouth result is out of step with most of the other highly regarded polls, all of which show Biden with a lead, with Sanders and Warren closely matched for second and third, a few points behind Biden. (Monmouth is also a highly regarded polling operation, which gets a top rating among the kinds of outfits that do such ratings.)
Over the next month or two, either some other pollsters will confirm that Biden has dropped from “clear front-runner” status, or they won’t. It’s still too early for that to matter much. Someone other than those three will more than likely make a run at the top bracket, after a good performance in one of the debates or a good showing in one of the early primaries or caucuses.
Over at Vox, Andrew Prokop says the best way to view the whole set of recent Democratic primary polling is that there are three candidates packed pretty closely at the top, with a bit of distance between that three-way tier and the rest of the pack. (And, I would add, no guarantee that someone from the rest of the pack won’t soon join the top-tier nor that one of the now top-three-sters won’t soon fizzle.)
My preachment: Keep thinking about who would be a good president. Don’t get locked into who’s up or down a point or two, because it will change soon. You’re allowed to ask yourself who you think will hold up the best under the inevitable Trump-lashing, but don’t be too confident of your ability to figure that out either. Donate, or door-knock or volunteer. Get some people you know who don’t always vote to vote this time around. And whatever you do, don’t pay as much attention to polls as I do, and if you can’t manage that, keep reminding yourself that polls are a margin-of-error snapshot of the recent past, not a foreteller of the future.
The link below will get you Monmouth’s own write up of its poll, headlined:
“3-Way Lead as Dem 2020 Picture Shifts; Sanders and Warren rise; Biden drops.”