CNN has released a new poll about the Democratic candidates and it revealed a huge increase in Biden support and a huge drop in interest in Harris. The Biden rise does not exactly surprise me, the Harris decline surprise me a bit. But whatever. There are still something like eighteen candidates in the race, pretty soon some of them are going to be dropping like flies.
Anyway, Biden is clearly viewed as the most moderate candidate. I know there was some recent progressive pushback against his “inappropriate touching” but any common sense analysis of said videos of Biden “inappropriately touching women” revealed them to be ridiculously harmless. And in some cases the women who were on the receiving end of a Biden hug have come out and said things like, “Ummm … he’s my close friend of 40 of years. Of course it’s okay for him to hug me!”
But while it turned out to be a nonstory, I think the negative coverage of Biden dropped him in the polls a bit. And … well … I also hate to say this but his pretty bad performance in the first debate didn’t help him. But all that seems to be water under the bridge now and moderate American’s are reminding themselves how much they like Biden. Conservatives even kind of liked him in the same way that liberals kind of liked Senator McCain. That seems to be changing though as Biden is the front runner and now FOXNEWS is running attack ad after attack add on Biden’s health - which, to be honest - looks just fine.
So - does that mean Biden is about to be our new President? Well - not so fast. This all comes from a single CNN poll of 1.001 people with a sampling error of 3.7%. I know some folks are skeptical of polls but all you need to do is remind yourself is that a poll is a snapshot of voters, it is not a forecast of the future. BUT, even though it’s true that people can change their mind as in “Someone polls for Biden one day but changes their mind the following week to support Sanders,” and it’s true that this does happen. People change their minds. That being said, snapshots of voters are surprisingly accurate.
I’ll bring Scientific American into the mix of things. According to their 2004 article, “How can a poll of only 1,004 Americans represent 260 million people with only a 3 percent margin of error?” - polls have a margin of error that depends:
“... inversely on the square root of the sample size. That is, a sample of 250 will give you a 6 percent margin of error and sample of 100 will give you a 10 percent margin of error.” Okay, I think I’m following that. And by the way, that ten percent margin of error is too high and therefore makes a polling of 100 people statistically worthless. So polls with too small a sampling size are not useful.
Well, just poll more folks! Right?
Well, it sounds like that’s true - up to a certain point. While it’s true that the more people you poll the smaller your margin of error becomes. Again, from Scientific America:
“... by surveying 4,000 people, you can get the margin of error down to 1.5 percent … but that is generally a waste of time because public opinion varies enough from day to day that it is meaningless to attempt too precise an estimate.”
Okay. Fair enough. It sounds like it would take too much time to gather polling data from several thousand people because by the time you compile the data, public opinion may have significantly altered. So it sounds like polling folks in the several thousand range - isn’t worth it at all. Which is why pollsters find the sweet spot to be about “a thousand people,” which puts the margin of error at 3.7% but can be done quickly and in enough time that public opinion hasn’t changed much by the time the poll is released.
Makes sense to me.
But what about anomalies? What about human error? What about bias?
Well, Scientific American covers that too:
“The margin of error is a mathematical abstraction, and there are a number of reasons why actual errors in surveys are larger. Even with random sampling, people in the population have unequal probabilities of inclusion in the survey. For instance, if you don't have a telephone, you won't be in the survey, but if you have two phone lines, you have two chances to be included. In addition, women, whites, older people and college-educated people are more likely to participate in surveys. Polling organizations correct for these nonresponse biases by adjusting the sample to match the population, but such adjustments can never be perfect because they only correct for known biases. For example, "surly people" are less likely to respond to a survey, but we don't know how many surly people are in the population or how this would bias polling results.”
Okay. I think I got it - a poll is a snapshot of voter opinion but again - it is not an actual prediction of exactly what will happen. A 3 percent margin of error means that “there is a 95 percent chance that the survey result will be within 3 percent of the population value.”
What that means is that pollsters, much like weathermen are better at their jobs than we give them credit for. I mean we have plenty of jokes about both are wrong all the time (especially the weatherman), the opposite is true - polls (and the weatherman) for the most part - are pretty accurate.
But anomalies do exist, errors happen. I mean, polls predicting the likely outcome of the 2016 Presidential election could have one candidate ten points ahead one week, and then watch that candidate lose mainly due to Widespread Russian Interference in all 50 States which rendered all the polls meaningless - and handing the election to the other candidate.
Pollsters love to do general election matchup polls early in the process to figure out which candidates would fare the best against a sitting incumbent president like Donald Trump. The idea is to give primary voters of one party or another an idea of which candidate is the most “electable.”
For example, in April 2011, Democracy Corps published a poll that showed Mitt Romney could defeat then-President Barack Obama, 48 percent to 46 percent. In Oct. 2011, another CNN-Opinion Research poll showed Romney leading 50 percent to 45 percent.
But we all know how it turned out. Even after showdowns with House Republicans over the debt ceiling in 2011 — which resulted in budget sequestration that helped reduce the deficit — Obama went on to comfortably win re-election in 2012.
So, how much stock should we put in the Politico-Morning Consult poll that shows former Vice President Joe Biden at 42 percent versus President Donald Trump at 36 percent? Almost none.
The question, particularly for first term presidents, is whether voters think it is time for a change, or if they are willing to be patient while the incumbent party finishes what it started.
In modern history, since 1952, that has yielded a fairly high re-election rate for incumbent parties in their first terms. Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected in 1956, Lyndon Johnson won John Kennedy’s second term in 1964, Richard Nixon was re-elected in 1972, Jimmy Carter was ousted in 1980, Ronald Reagan was re-elected in 1984, Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996, George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 and Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012.
All told, in modern history, in 87.5 percent of the cases where the incumbent party had served one term it tended to be re-elected.
Readers will note that George H.W. Bush is not included in that listing. The reason for that is he won Reagan’s third term — that is, the third consecutive term that Republicans had held the White House. So, his being ousted in 1992 was less surprising because it came after 12 years of uninterrupted Republican rule in the White House. The same applies to Gerald Ford, who in 1976 was running for essentially Nixon’s third term, and Lyndon Johnson and then Hubert Humphrey in 1968 running for a third Democratic term.
But even if you include Bush and Ford in the mix as far as how sitting presidents have fared in a general election, in 70 percent of cases they have won since 1952. If you want to go back to World War II, Harry Truman won election in 1948 as a sitting president, and the number jumps up to about 73 percent.
If you look as far back as the beginning of the republic, sitting presidents who have stood for re-election in the general election have won about 70 percent of the time, although it is worth noting that until the 1800s, state legislatures generally chose electors.
So, there’s a distinct incumbency advantage, especially for first-term presidents that should give Trump an edge in 2020 no matter who the candidate is.
Particularly when it comes to presidents, in modern history, the American people, particularly independents, do not aspire to one-party rule. Swing voters tend to decide elections nowadays, and after just one term, they are still a lot more likely to give the incumbent the benefit of the doubt.
Where the rubber meets the road, and what separates one-term presidents from two-term presidents, will be the primaries. Biden or whoever is going to win the Democratic nomination must first compete and win the nomination, and do so in commanding fashion (rather than being bloodied along the way), to have a good chance to oust the incumbent.
Simultaneously, whoever the Democrat nominee is would need President Trump to have a bruising primary contest for the nomination to even out the odds. If Trump is vulnerable, it should be revealed in the primaries. But is William Weld really a credible threat to Trump? We’ll find out soon.
In modern history, unchallenged incumbents have tended to cruise to reelection. The likelihood of unseating an incumbent in the primary is close to zero, but real damage can be wrought to harm to his re-election chances. For more information, check out Stony Brook University Professor Helmut Norpoth’s primary model, which offers a guide to some of these trends. (Disclosure: I took his class!)
President Trump and Republicans have been in power for just two years and change. Is it already time for a change? History says the odds are - not yet.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government. He
So, Sunday morning, I opened the electronic version of the only local newspaper I subscribe to and trust, the Las Vegas Review Journal, and I see, buried on page A8, a story headlined “Poll shows Democrats more trusted with health care”
Which was true…sort of. Because I’m pretty sure the story reported the numbers of the poll accurately.
The “poll” was an “Associated Press-NORC Center” poll which, you had to read seven paragraphs to the bottom of the story—by the Associated Press—to find out that “The poll of 1,108 adults was conducted April 11-14 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.” Let me be the first to ask the question: If that factoid had been in the headline or in the first paragraph, would anyone take this seriously? What if the story read like this:
“A poll of 1,108 adults paid for by the company selling this story to news outlets says that Democrats are more trusted to handle healthcare in the United States. The pollsters say that the 1108 adults can predict the sentiments of the 128,824,246 voters who cast a ballot in 2016 with a margin of error of 4.1 percent.”
Would anybody actually believe—especially after the 2016 election—that a sample of .0000086 percent of the voting electorate has a margin of error of 4.5 percent? But, in my favorite local newspaper, it is presented as fact. If this kind of polling were accurate, why did virtually every pollster predict Hillary by 7 points on the day of the 2016 election.
Polling used to be easier because, for most purposes, you could at least get a sample which was demographically sound. We could tell roughly where you lived by your telephone number and who you were. Today, with the advent of cell phones and cheap VOIP services, we cannot even tell with certainty what state you are in. Further, there is the built-in bias of many news organizations which sponsor such polls. If you believe that the AP is some kind of neutral news behemoth, guess again. Ditto for CBS, NBC, CNN, ABC and, yes, even Fox. They all come at stories from a predominately liberal viewpoint (with the occasional exception of Fox) so why would you believe that their polling selections would be much different?
Then, there’s the “if you see it in the media it must be true” school of thought. It’s today’s version of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ Big Lie theory which, simply stated, says if you tell a lie big enough, many people will have to believe it. Inevitably, these “polls” are presented by the same people who populate organizations like the White House Correspondents Association and are soooo offended by the term Fake News and the President’s assertion that those who willfully present Fake News are the enemies of the people.
But the truth is not only is President Trump correct, but the average voter knows bullcrap when he or she sees it. Journalists have a tendency to see themselves as more knowledgeable and more important than average voting citizens. Many times, in conversation, journalists use terms like “them” and “those people” to describe and differentiate average voters. As if journalists, somehow, fall into a different category. Like Hillary and the word deplorable.
Want some proof? Watch those panels on FNC and CNN. Watch the Sunday morning shows.
It’s that sort of hubris which allows them to write headlines and lead paragraphs like the one I referred to above—even in my favorite local newspaper. (And I’m not kidding about that.) I’ve been in this business since I was 12. But I live about 2,600 miles from Washington and my neighbors remind me daily that I’m pretty average. I would hate for it to be any other way.