poll position

Trump Needs Debates to Move the Polls

Biden’s national lead remains steady. Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photos: Getty Images

Thirty-six days out from November 3, likely-voter polls testing national and battleground-state opinions in presidential and Senate races are pouring out regularly. They continue on average to show a steady, if not insurmountable, Biden lead nationally, with smaller Biden leads in key battleground states. Senate polls continue to show a strong possibility of a Democratic takeover, but margins in many key races are close enough to be reversed, particularly if the presidential race tightens.

Joe Biden’s national polling average lead is at 7.3 percent (50.2/43.0) at FiveThirtyEight and 6.9 percent (49.8/42.9) at RealClearPolitics.
Thirty-six days out in 2016, Clinton led in the RCP average by 3.8 percent, though her margin would soon temporarily expand when the Access Hollywood tape of Trump sharing brutally misogynistic laughs with Billy Bush came out.

Notable new high-quality national polls show Biden up by eight points (New York Times/Siena) and ten points (ABC/Washington Post), both among likely voters. With voting by mail already underway in a number of states, it’s notable that the Times/Siena survey shows a persistent partisan gap in intended voting methods, with 48 percent of Democrats (and only 17 percent of Republicans) planning to vote by mail, while 68 percent of Republicans (and only 28 percent of Democrats) plan to vote in person on Election Day.

The ABC/WaPo poll illustrates how powerfully the gender gap is influencing the race:

Trump edges Biden by eight points among white men with college degrees and leads by a wide 39 points among white men who do not have degrees. Biden leads among white women with college degrees by 41 points and is almost even among white women without degrees. In 2016, Clinton lost white women without college degrees by 23 points, according to the Pew survey of confirmed voters.

ABC/WaPo is also among the first major national polls to add the minor-party candidates to respondent choices, and it’s a bit surprising that they show the Libertarian Party’s Jo Jorgensen with 4 percent and the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins with 3 percent. In the four-way test, Biden’s lead over Trump drops to 6 percent (49/43), reinforcing the impression that in a reelection contest that’s essentially a referendum on Trump, all votes not going to the incumbent could be divided. But it’s worth noting that polling in 2016 significantly overestimated the ultimate minor-party vote, as it often does. In addition, Hawkins isn’t on the ballot at present in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

It may be of note that although Trump’s job-approval ratings have been amazingly stable throughout his presidency, he is currently drifting upward to 44.7 percent at RealClearPolitics and 43.7 percent at FiveThirtyEight — toward the ceiling of his range.

Battleground-state polling continues to show Biden with a strategic advantage that could quickly fade if the national race tightens. Using the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, Biden is up by 7.0 points in Michigan, 6.9 points in Wisconsin, 6.5 percent in Nevada, and 5.0 points in Pennsylvania. His leads are more vulnerable in Arizona (3.7 percent), Florida (1.8 percent), North Carolina (1.3 percent), and Ohio (1.1 percent), and Trump narrowly leads now in Georgia, Iowa, and Texas. A uniform national swing of two points could add 62 electoral votes to Trump’s column and place 31 more within reach. But the exceptional steadiness of the national contest makes that national swing tougher to achieve than one might imagine, which is why the upcoming debates are crucial for Trump. Even if he does well, it’s unclear how much it will matter: In 2016, according to Gallup, the public thought Hillary Clinton had “won” all three debates, with her best margin (60/31) being in the third.

Meanwhile, the battle for control of the Senate seems to be getting more intense. In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly’s double-digit lead over Martha McSally has shrunk significantly (he’s up by 5.2 percent in the RCP averages), and a new ABC/WaPo poll has him up by just one point. The big positive news for Democrats is that Lindsey Graham continues to struggle with a challenge from the exceptionally well-funded Jaime Harrison, though Graham’s starring role in confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett could well firm up his support among Republicans. Similarly strong red-state challenges to Republican incumbents in Iowa and Montana (and Democrat Doug Jones’s reelection bid in Alabama) look vulnerable to pre-election partisan polarization, and Republicans still have the upper hand in both Senate contests in Georgia. But Republican incumbents Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine are being hurt by Trump’s weak standing in their states, and North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis has trailed Cal Cunningham in every poll taken since June.

Trump Needs Debates to Move the Polls