poll position

So How Do the Polls Look After That Hellscape of a Debate?

Thirty-three days until a tense Election Night. Photo-Illustration: Megan Paetzhold. Photos: Getty Images

Those who had hoped the first 2020 presidential debate would kick-start a Trump comeback, after more than a year of his trailing Joe Biden in horse-race polls, were obviously disappointed by the cage match in Cleveland. Most observers and poll respondents thought Biden “won,” if that term has any relevance for an event that disgusted many viewers, as Trump again seemed to be in a private conversation with his MAGA bravos, instead of seeking to expand his coalition and win over the small, remaining group of persuadable voters. In any event, while the first debate was a telling lost opportunity for the incumbent, it doesn’t seem likely to have a significant impact on the polls, which continue to show a stable race led by Biden — though without a big margin for error when it comes to key battleground states. With 33 days left before November 3, and votes now being cast all over the country, Trump needs to step up his tempestuous game unless (as some indicators suggest) he has just worn out his welcome with an exhausted nation outside the closed circle of his fans.

Biden’s lead in the national polling average is at 7.6 percent at FiveThirtyEight and 6.6 percent at RealClearPolitics. Trump did do relatively well in the one gold-standard poll released since our last update, trailing Biden by five points in a new Monmouth survey (Biden had led by seven in an early-September Monmouth poll). But that same poll showed 50 percent of voters having all but ruled out a vote for Trump, while only 39 percent have the same strongly negative attitude toward Biden.

The only entirely post-debate national poll out so far, from Change Research for CNBC, showed Biden leading by 13 points (the same pollster, with a meh reputation, had Biden up by nine a couple of weeks ago). The new survey showed Biden “winning” the debate by a 53-29 margin.

It was surely a nasty surprise to the Trump camp that the president’s very favorite pollster, the famously Republican-leaning Rasmussen outfit, had a new national poll out showing Biden up by eight (51-43) among likely voters. The last Razz poll had Biden up by one point, and a mid-September survey actually showed Trump ahead, the only publicly available national poll to do so since February.

Trump’s job-approval rating has bumped along near the ceiling of his narrow range of popularity showings since 2017, at 45.5 percent at RealClearPolitics and 43.9 percent at FiveThirtyEight.

New state polls provide some notable good news for Biden. In Pennsylvania, expected by many to be the tipping-point state in a close race, two gold-standard polls (ABC/WaPo and New York Times/Siena) show Biden with a nine-point lead among likely voters. The former survey notes 8 percent of 2016 Trump voters now preferring Biden in one of the states that had vaulted Trump to the presidency. Quinnipiac, with a good if not great reputation, had the most shocking poll finding of the week: Trump leading Biden by just one point in South Carolina. The Palmetto State, a trendsetter in southern racial polarization and a conservative stronghold, has gone Democratic in a presidential contest exactly once since 1960 (for Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976); in this century, only Barack Obama in 2008 has held Republicans below a ten-point win. Q-Pac also had Biden up by three (50-47) in Georgia, which has gone Democratic just once (in 1992) since native son Carter was on the ballot.

There hasn’t been much dramatic polling news in the past few days in Senate races. The same Q-Pac survey showing Biden so competitive in South Carolina more plausibly showed Jaime Harrison tied with Lindsey Graham. And it’s not surprising that Quinnipiac had Democrats in the lead in both Georgia Senate races: Jon Ossoff had 49 percent of likely voters to David Perdue’s 48 percent, and Raphael Warnock led with 31 percent over dueling Republicans Kelly Loeffler (23 percent) and Doug Collins (22 percent), with a January runoff a certainty.

We remain in a trajectory toward a close Biden win and an even closer Democratic margin in the Senate, but nothing’s a lock just yet, as Nate Silver reminded Chris Cillizza today:

Silver’s model still gives Trump a 20 percent chance to win, and that indeed ain’t nothing. We still don’t know, moreover, if the president and his party will allow an honest count.

So How Do the Polls Look After That Hellscape of a Debate?