2016 v. 2020

One of these really isn't like the other.

I have seen some chatter on Twitter this week, mostly in response to the CNN poll that I noted yesterday that placed Biden at +16, that the polls had HRC up by double-digits in early October as well (so look out!). This is both true and misleading. As I have noted before, there has been a bought of over-correction in the minds of many over 2016, given that it looked like Clinton was going to beat Trump and, well, we know the rest.

But, of course, 2016 was less about polling failure than it was about a combination of some models failing, under-polling a few key states, and the fact that a lot of people lack a basic understanding of probability.

Regardless, let’s look at 2016 and 2020, since these really are different years in terms of polling trends.

Here’s RCP 2016 polling average through to Election Day. As I have noted before, the polling average and the actual popular vote outcome was quite close, meaning there was no national-vote polling failure in 2016.

Note two very important things:

  1. Save back in 2015 and briefly in the Spring of 2016, HRC was never above 50%. (Put another way: she was consistently below 50%, often several points below).
  2. Public opinion was volatile.

Still, I agree that anyone looking at these numbers would have assumed HRC was going to win (I thought she was going to win) and certainly in early October 2016, one would have felt pretty good about that outcome (although one would have to note that over the summer Trump did show competitiveness).

Switch to 2020 (which only goes until today, obviously):

Note three things:

  1. Biden has been hovering at, or above, 50% going back to early summer.
  2. The relative stability of public opinion.
  3. Trump not only hasn’t lead once, he hasn’t gotten all that close (and even when close, it doesn’t stick for long).

While the 2020 trends do not guarantee a Biden victory, they do show that something very dramatic would have to happen for us to say anything other than Biden is the objective favorite. (And yes, it could all be wrong, but there is nothing about decades of polling history to suggest these numbers are anything other than accurate).

The fact that Biden is at or above 50% indicates, unlike in 2016, there is not a lot of undecideds or third-party voters who could shift toward Trump (as happened in 2016).

Let’s look at the exact same timeframe (9/1-10/7) for both years.

Here’s 2016, where again, we see volatility and HRC unable to get over the 50% support level. Although I will note, this date four years ago showed a gap that would make a person on that day pretty confident of a Clinton win.

Here’s this year, same date range. Again: stability instead of volatility and Biden being no lower than 49% and mostly at or above 50%:

Recognizing the anxiety that many feel about a 2016 repeat, and acknowledging that some could utterly alter the dynamics of the race, the reality is that 2016 and 2020 are very different cycles and should be viewed and discussed as such.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2016, Campaign 2020, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Jim Brown 32 says:

    I’ve the last couple of weeks in Western North Carolina and Coastal South Carolina. The Trump Flags and Billboards were gaudy….but there weren’t a lot of them by any measure. I was quite surprised. I think Trump is toast.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    One can argue, and I would, that Comey’s October letter pushed Trump just over the line. But it took a couple years of GOP activity and a lot of MSM complicity to set that up. I’m worried about an October surprise, but I can’t honestly see where it might come from. Trump kept screaming Hunter-three-and-a-half-million-Moscow-wife and nobody paid any attention, except fact checkers. The GOPs don’t seem to be even hinting Durham’s got anything. About all I can find to worry about right now is Biden catching the virus.

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  3. reid says:

    Good data and good post. Despite things looking much better this year, I still have this dread that the GOP at various levels will be able to pull off various “shenanigans” to make it closer. (The fact that shenanigans are sort of accepted is tragic.) We need a blowout.

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    He’s behind in every swing state. Every single one.

    All Putin’s trolls, and all the GOP’s voter suppression, aren’t going to save Trump.

    Now it’s a question of how many we can take down with him. Oh, Lindsey?

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  5. a country lawyer says:

    Although my office is in a comfortably blue city, my home is in a very red rural Tennessee county. It went for Trump 70% to 30% in 2016. This year in the county I’m seeing very few lawn signs for either Trump or Biden, but the number is about equally divided. The big race in the county is for sheriff, and the lawns are covered with the various candidates signs. The county will still go Trump but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of enthusiasm.

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  6. Monala says:

    @gVOR08: I think the Hunter thing doesn’t hit because to most people, it sounds like Hunter is a screw-up and most people have at least one of those in their family. They don’t blame Biden for it, just like they wouldn’t want to be blamed for the kid in their family that messes up. And Biden’s words at the last debate about how he loves his kid for overcoming addiction strikes a cord.

    And the “Biden pulled strings for his kid” angle doesn’t really work when the president’s kids are working in the White House.

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  7. mattbernius says:

    @a country lawyer:

    This year in the county I’m seeing very few lawn signs for either Trump or Biden, but the number is about equally divided.

    I was just talking about this with my wife. We have seen very few national lawn signs. The Trump folks till tend to be to more over the top — lawn signs and flags — but nowhere near as many as in 2016. Honestly, BLM signs are more common than national signs.

    We do see a number for local elections. But those lawns don’t typically have any Biden or Trump signs.

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  8. Kylopod says:

    I would add another point which often gets overlooked in these 2016 vs. 2020 comparisons, which is that many of the pollsters have adjusted their methodology in response to their 2016 misfire–for instance, trying to avoid undersampling whites without college degrees. Now of course that doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to be more accurate this time around–they may have misread what went wrong about the 2016 polls, they may be overcompensating too much in the other direction, and new issues are cropping up this year (I think the difficulty in using normal turnout models during the pandemic could be a big problem, and that’s not even getting into the active Republican sabotage of the voting-by-mail system), but it’s yet another reason why 2016 vs. 2020 polls is essentially an apples-to-oranges comparison.

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  9. Gromitt Gunn says:

    As I walk around my neighborhood, I see very few signs for anything other than local races. A few Trumps, don’t recall any Bidens. It’s a small city starter home subdivision, mostly lower-middle class and pretty racially mixed, in a very very red part of Texas. None of the Trump people are going overboard. Just a lawn sign set away from the road.

    I’ve had door hangers from the County Dems promoting their local and House candidates, but none from the County GOPs. Even the TV ad buys have been fairly subdued. Cornyn and MJ are running a few ads, as is Sessions for the House, and I saw my first Biden ad last night. We’re a pretty small media market compared to Houston and Dallas, so that’s probably a factor.

    There’s been more Register to Vote activity, overall, than activity from specific candidates. Given the state GOP’s coordinated efforts to subdue the vote, that’s probably an overall more effective strategy: get people registered and then get them pissed off that Abbott and Paxton are trying to make it as difficult as possible for you to safely and securely vote.

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  10. inhumans99 says:

    Yeah Monala, I remember on the show Scrubs (great sitcom by the way) when a doc was gently groaning about some of the actions performed by his son that caused him discomfort to another doctor and then when the other doctor joined in on bagging on his son things got chilly between the two docs and the nurse who was listening just shook her head and said that a father can grumble about the actions of his own son but when someone else insults his son it is a huge no-no.

    It would be like if Biden decided to rip into Ivanka when he debated Trump, and if that had happened Trump would be correct to be livid that Biden went after one of his kids to try and get re-elected, that Trump does not understand this pretty much explains why it is not looking good that he will get a 2nd term.

    No one cares about Hunter Biden because he is not running for President, and what amazes me is how many Republicans who are the head of the committees they are on did not think to tell Trump that it would be a huge mistake to go after Biden’s son on national tv. It was such a bad look that even if they do not admit it out loud I am sure many of Trump’s supporters cringed when Trump tore into Biden’s son.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @Monala:

    And the “Biden pulled strings for his kid” angle doesn’t really work when the president’s kids are working in the White House.

    True. But a letter writer in the local paper said she’s voting for Trump because Biden may have cribbed a speech so he’s a liar and Hunter got some the benefit of nepotism. The local semi-pro paper has a couple weeks backlog of election letters, so there’s no point to submitting a reply. But ‘I’m voting for Trump because of Biden’s lies and nepotism.’? Le sigh.

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  12. Sleeping Dog says:

    There is unlikely to be an October surprise, unless it was Trump cancelling negotiations on a second covid relief package. The greatest concern now is DoJ mucking up elections in particular locals.

    https://www.propublica.org/article/doj-frees-federal-prosecutors-to-take-steps-that-could-interfere-with-elections-weakening-long-standing-policy

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  13. Joe says:

    The Trump folks still tend to be to more over the top — lawn signs and flags — but nowhere near as many as in 2016.

    While I think this your observation is generally true, mattbernius, there is a locally famous DUMP TRUMP 3’x10′ banner and accompanying display in a yard on an arterial street in my town that is both comically over the top and yet satisfying every time I see it. The owner wrote into the paper a month ago about some pickup truck coming to a full stop on the arterial street to yell obscenities at her.

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  14. JohnMcC says:

    Thank you, Dr Taylor, for the attempt to comfort me about this next election. I have some confidence that you are correct. Every sentient interpreter of PoliSci data agrees with you; Nate Silver has decreased the President’s chances of a 2d term to 0.16. Mr Biden wins 84 of 100 spins of the wheel.

    I will be anxious until Jan 20th though. The nest of vipers that has coagulated around this administration (Stephen Miller, Bill Barr, et al) know how to get what they want and are determined to get it. I don’t think they expect to win this election but I don’t think they will let that stop them.

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  15. Kathy says:

    One point much discussed, especially by some Mexican pundits, before the election in 2016, was that the candidate with the worst negative ratings tends to lose. This refers to a poll question on whether one views a candidate favorably or unfavorably.

    Trump’s unfavorable ratings were very bad, the thinking went, ergo he can’t win.

    The problem is that Clinton’s unfavorable ratings were also bad.

    The difference is Biden has a rather good favorable rating, and a mild unfavorable.

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  16. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy:

    The difference is Biden has a rather good favorable rating, and a mild unfavorable.

    I have an additional theory, which is that even people with an unfavorable view of Biden are less likely to actively dislike him than was the case with Clinton. They’re just “meh” about him. Make no mistake: I’m sure there are millions of hardcore Republicans who think Biden is Satan, largely because that’s what they’ve been told to believe. I’m not talking about those kinds of voters: they’re baked in, and they hate literally every Democrat who comes along. I’m talking about the extent to which Hillary was more hated than usual for a Democrat, and while this was certainly reflected in her unusually low favorable numbers, these polls don’t always capture the intensity of people’s opinions. One way to do that would be to distinguish between people with “somewhat” favorable/unfavorable views of the candidate versus “strongly” favorable/unfavorable. There are a few presidential approval polls that make this distinction, but I don’t know if it’s been done for favorability polls of non-incumbents. In any case, I imagine that if you ran such a poll about Clinton and Biden, a much larger share of Clinton’s unfavorable would be in the “strongly unfavorable” camp compared with Biden’s.

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  17. JohnSF says:

    My state polls summary based on 270 to Win/FiveThirtyEight.
    Taking +5% as “should win” for Biden
    Between the 5% bound as strongly competitive.
    Electoral votes for Biden summary:

    October 6:
    Should win: 277
    Competing: 144

    October 7:
    Should win: 319
    Competing: 103

    42 into “should” for Dems in a day!
    At 27 days out I can’t see anything obvious that could shift opinion in Trump’s favour.
    As for Trump/GOP attack ploys, Biden should be renamed “Teflon Joe” 🙂

    If I were part of Team Trump I’d be looking for alternative employment prospects at this point.
    (Possibly in a non-extradition territory)

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  18. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kylopod:

    In agreement with you, the voters who have an unfavorable view of Joe, have it because he’s a generic Dem and they fear the policies he’ll pursue a normal Dem policies, the dislike isn’t necessarily personal. Some of those folks despise Trump on a personal level and could break for Joe or stay home.

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  19. Kurtz says:

    @reid:

    I read a report about Republicans in state governments preparing for the eventuality of sending an alternate slate of electors depending on the situation. They are formulating legal strategies, etc.

    My first thought was of course they will, the likelihood of litigation is high. That’s what legal teams do.

    But then, my brain slapped me in the face and reminded me that it’s plausible they could win the legal battle.

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  20. Scott F. says:

    While the 2020 trends do not guarantee a Biden victory, they do show that something very dramatic would have to happen for us to say anything other than Biden is the objective favorite.

    Would armed Trumpist poll-watchers count as “something very dramatic?”

    While I agree a Biden victory is favored, I believe it is a certainty that we will see unprecedented levels of election meddling and chicanery around this election. In the ways the OP has noted, 2020 not being 2016 bodes well for a Biden win, but in other ways, 2020 will be unlike 2016 in bad and unpredictable ways. That’s why I won’t relax until Trump is good and gone.

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  21. @Scott F.:

    Would armed Trumpist poll-watchers count as “something very dramatic?”

    As much as even one such person worries me, for a variety of reasons, I cannot see a scenario where there are enough such persons to truly disrupt the election.

    I am actually more concerned with Trump’s rhetoric and him stirring up doubt in the results.

    That’s why I won’t relax until Trump is good and gone.

    Who said anything about relaxing?

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  22. JohnSF says:

    @Kurtz:
    There are some very nasty hypotheticals getting thrown up now; but then, these are sour times.
    The question has to be, can governors, or other state level agents, just step in and appoint electors?
    Or does the election just get thrown to the House?

    If to the House, Dems. have counters to play.
    If in the hands of state authorities, all bets are off, and kindly bar the doors.

    To quote David Allen Green (slightly out of context):

    1. Constitutional law is currently exciting and fun
    2. Constitutional law should not be exciting and fun

    For your further reading entertainment: State Laws Regarding Presidential Electors
    Started reading.
    Gave up, drank more wine.

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  23. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    We see this the same way, Steven.

    It’s just with the ways norms have been destroyed over the last 4+ years, I’ve come to believe the only thing we can truly expect to happen this cycle is something unexpected.

    BTW – I early voted in California this afternoon and my state offers the ability to track my ballot. If only it were that easy for everyone.

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  24. wr says:

    @gVOR08: “’m worried about an October surprise, but I can’t honestly see where it might come from.”

    You mean a BIGGER surprise? Aliens would have to land…

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  25. wr says:

    @Kurtz: “But then, my brain slapped me in the face and reminded me that it’s plausible they could win the legal battle.”

    And then what?

    That would be legitimately seen as a stolen election, and there would be the kind of protests you see in Belarus. It would also be the end of American democracy. If they won that battle, we would be in for a long war.

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  26. Kylopod says:

    @wr:

    You mean a BIGGER surprise? Aliens would have to land…

    “We’re going to build a ceiling, and Mars is going to pay for it!”

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  27. gVOR08 says:

    @wr:

    You mean a BIGGER surprise? Aliens would have to land…

    I should have clarified a Barr, Trump, whoever, planned surprise. One they think will be good for them. Not more of the crises Trump stumbles into.

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  28. Blue Galangal says:

    @Kylopod:

    I’m sure there are millions of hardcore Republicans who think Biden is Satan, largely because that’s what they’ve been told to believe

    If you haven’t run across Chrissy Stroop’s post on the basics of evangelicals in flyover land, it’s well worth a read.
    https://cstroop.com/2018/06/14/escape-from-jesus-land-on-recognizing-evangelical-abuse-and-finding-the-strength-to-reject-the-faith-of-our-fathers/ – sample quote:

    As should come as no surprise at this point, I grew up with a strong sense that voting for Republicans is required of Christians, mostly “because abortion” (“school prayer” was another regular rallying cry). As a five-, six-, seven-year-old child, adults at church and school functions were already leading me to conclude that “liberal” was an antonym for “Christian,” because “Democrats murder babies” and “abortion is a literal holocaust.” Voting for Republicans was thus imperative, which absolutely does not mean that our Christianity was “merely political” and “not really religious,” despite the desire of certain commentators to exclude from “real” religion anything that they don’t consider benign. We were intensely religious.

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  29. @Blue Galangal:

    I grew up with a strong sense that voting for Republicans is required of Christians, mostly “because abortion”

    That was very much my experience in my youth (and I know plenty of people who think that way).

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  30. Kurtz says:

    @JohnSF:

    For your further reading entertainment: State Laws Regarding Presidential Electors
    Started reading.
    Gave up, drank more wine.

    Look, if you’re trying to get me drunk on wine, you don’t have to send me entertaining reading to get me there.

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  31. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: In the area of South Carolina I was in near Myrtle Beach…the Watson to Graham commercial ratio was 4 to 1 Watson. Watson may not be able to strike Graham out…but he’s throwing one hell of a brush back pitch

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  32. Kurtz says:

    @wr:

    From my limited understanding, the scenario I was reading about may not require a legal pretzel. In that case, it just needs to seem fair and reasonable to the middle section of voters.

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  33. JohnMcC says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Just looked at a couple of Mr Google’s suggestions to the question: important issues to voters. Abortion was last on the list, 12th, behind economy, covid, racial and economic inequality. It was even behind climate change. “Supreme court appointments” is third which I suppose could be a proxy.

    Color me surprised.

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  34. @JohnMcC: Very likely SCOTUS appointments is a proxy in the minds of many for abortion and other cultural issues.

    Note that my observation is not meant to imply that abortion is the #1 issues in a general sense, but rather to note the degree to which it does motivate a not insignificant number of voters.

    I think it is unequivocally the case that evangelical support for Trump is driven heavily by the abortion issue, which is also deeply part of their identity.

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