The string of Democratic victories in Tuesday night’s special elections, including taking over both houses of the Virginia legislature for the first time in a generation and winning the governor’s race in Kentucky, brought not just joy to Democrats but also relief. Every election in the Trump era makes Democrats jittery, but the party was even more nervous than usual after the publication on Monday of a New York Times and Siena College poll showing that although Donald Trump is very unpopular nationally, he is still competitive in the swing states that will decide the election.
According to the Times, of the major Democratic candidates, only Joe Biden enjoyed an advantage, albeit a very small one, over Trump. “Across the six closest states that went Republican in 2016, he trails Joe Biden by an average of two points among registered voters but stays within the margin of error,” the newspaper reported. “Mr. Trump leads Elizabeth Warren by two points among registered voters, the same margin as his win over Hillary Clinton in these states three years ago. The poll showed Bernie Sanders deadlocked with the president among registered voters, but trailing among likely voters.”
The poll sent shock waves through the Democratic Party. While Biden remains the front-runner in the presidential primaries, his position has been weakening, and there’s a high likelihood that Warren or Sanders could be the standard-bearer. Writing in The Daily Beast, Elinor Clift argued that “if Democrat’s aren’t panicking, they aren’t paying attention.”
Jonathan Chait of New York magazine was quick to draw the lesson from the poll that the Democrats in the primaries had moved too far to the left. “Biden’s paper-thin lead over Trump in the swing states is largely attributable to the perception that he is more moderate than Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders,” Chait argued. “Three-quarters of those who would vote for Biden over Trump, but Trump over Warren, say they would prefer a more moderate Democratic nominee to a more liberal one, and a candidate who would find common ground with Republicans over one who would fight for a progressive agenda.” Chait concluded that “the party should look at its position a year before the election with real fear. The party’s presidential field has lost the plot.”
It’s hard not to be cynical about this argument, since it so closely aligns with Chait’s already held political preferences. Chait is in effect using the poll as a cudgel to frighten Democrats from voting for anyone too far to the left.
Even on its own terms, the New York Times and Siena College poll tells a more complicated story than just that the electorate wants moderates. After all, it shows Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, doing better than Elizabeth Warren, who claims to be a capitalist to her very bones. Further, the poll shows Sanders winning over Trump in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), which, if combined with secure Democratic states, would give Sanders the presidency. In Michigan, Sanders actually does 2 percent better than Biden, again complicating the narrative that moderation is the only path to victory.
The New York Times and Siena College poll is of high quality, so it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But it is also only one data point. When it comes to polling, the best practice is to aggregate a number of polls. As polling maven Nate Silver cautions, “To do it right, you’d need to look at polls from many different polling orgs (and account for how they vary from one another) in all competitive states + national polls. There’s not enough data to do that yet, and even if there were, polling ~1 year out is not very accurate.”
While there are not a huge number of other polls, there are enough that we can see the Times/Siena poll is an outlier. If it is read in conjunction with other credible polls, the situation looks much less dire. On Tuesday, The Washington Post released a poll showing Trump losing badly not just against the Democratic front-runners but also against candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris.
Former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) run strongest against the president nationally, with Biden leading by 17 points (56 per cent to 39 per cent), Warren by 15 points (55 per cent to 40 per cent) and Sanders by 14 points (55 per cent to 41 per cent). South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the other two Democrats tested against Trump, also lead the president among registered voters, with Buttigieg up by 52 percent to 41 percent, and Harris ahead by 51 percent to 42 percent.
The Washington Post’s finding was in line with a poll from Data for Progress that showed Biden, Sanders, and Warren all winning the major battleground states.
Looking at the Data For Progress Poll, Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center argued, “The Democratic candidate, whoever it is, can beat Trump in swing States, so nominate who you want and stop trying to game it out with nonsensically premature polling.”
It’s not just that polls have to be read with caution. They also can’t be the only evidence. Actual elections also count for something. The special elections on Tuesday were consistent with almost every election since Trump’s 2016 victory. There’s been a consistent pattern of purple states turning blue, as in Virginia. In red states like Kentucky, Democrats are still facing steep odds but doing much better than before thanks to a surge of support in suburbs that allows them to sometimes win upset victories. Moreover, progressive candidates are winning in down-ballot races. All of this is evidence of a mobilized Democratic Party, which bodes well for 2020.
The anxiety that Democrats have over bad polls is perfectly understandable. The 2016 election remains traumatic. Trump was losing in the polls in that election—and did go on to lose the popular vote—but still achieved an electoral college victory based on razor thin-margins in three states. Trump’s victory, in other words, was an almost epic stroke of bad luck. It’s hard not to get superstitious and fearful after a fluke defeat like that.
Fear breeds bad decisions. In the primaries, it is fear above all that is keeping Joe Biden, a deeply flawed candidate, viable. Biden’s supporters are risk-averse, believing that his record of being on a winning national ticket makes him the safe bet. As a moderate, he supposedly won’t frighten the swing state voters. But even in the Times/Siena poll, he’s only a shade more popular than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
The proper remedy for fear is a look at the big picture, not just one poll. The big picture is that Trump remains unpopular and Democratic voters are energized to kick him out. The Democratic standard-bearer has to be someone who can harness the passion that already exists to move beyond Trump. Primary voters should be confident enough to vote not out of fear but out of hope.