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Joe Biden maintains a steady lead over Donald Trump in national polling

Joe Biden is leading the polls in September. That puts him in historically good company. 

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leaves a campaign event on September 27, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s lead over President Donald Trump in national polling now stands at a 10 percentage point margin in new polling of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News.

That lead was reflected in additional polls reported over the weekend — in an Emerson College/NewsNation poll of likely voters, Biden led Trump by 4 percentage points, a slight jump from an August Emerson poll that showed Trump behind by just 2 percentage points.

Biden’s lead over Trump has been remarkably consistent — he held a lead in head-to-head polling over Trump during the Democratic nomination process back in 2019, and the consistency of his polling margins over Trump was being discussed in historic terms in May of this year.

Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — and resulting shutdown measures on the local and state level, unrest sparked by police misconduct, wildfires and hurricanes, the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (and the announcement of her likely replacement, Judge Amy Coney Barrett) — Biden has stayed ahead of Trump.

Biden leads with critical constituencies (and in a big way)

It’s important to remember that polls aren’t predictions. Rather, polls are snapshots in time, indicating what a group of Americans — whether registered voters, likely voters, or simply adults — are thinking at a particular point during a race.

But it’s also worth noting that Biden’s current lead comes from a number of critical voting constituencies, including older Americans and white college graduates.

For example, according to the Washington Post/ABC News poll, political moderates favor Biden by a 47 percentage point margin in comparison to Hillary Clinton’s 12 percentage point margin in exit polls back in 2016. Independent-voting women favor Biden by a 57 point margin, compared to Clinton’s 4 points four years ago. White women — a group that Trump won by 9 points back in 2016 — now favor Biden by a 15 point margin.

All of these groups are key to victory — senior citizens are among America’s most reliable voting cohorts, as are, according to exit polling from 2016, white women. In 2016, 67 percent of white women said they voted, compared to 64 percent of white men, 50 percent of Hispanic women, and 64 percent of Black women. A shift among any of these groups — particularly in swing states with large populations of older voters, like Florida and Texas — could help shape the results of the 2020 election.

But Trump has held onto the majority of his 2016 supporters — 91 percent of likely 2020 voters who voted for him four years ago plan to do so again. And importantly, Trump now has support from 87 percent of voters who consider themselves to be conservative, more than the 82 percent of conservative voters who supported Mitt Romney back in 2012 (or Reagan in 1984) and the 84 percent of conservative voters who supported George W. Bush in 2004.

Putting the polls into context

To put these polling results into historical context, I wanted to take a look at past September polls during election years, particularly during presidential races taking place between an incumbent president and a challenger. So I went back to the Septembers of 1984, 1992, 1996, 2004, and 2012, and found that September polling has been a crucial indicator for incumbents, win or lose.

In September of 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan held a strong lead over Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, leading in Gallup polling conducted that month by a near-20 percentage point margin. A New York Times/CBS News poll from September 19, 1984, found Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, led Mondale and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro 54 percent to 33 percent. Reagan would go on to win a landslide victory, carrying 49 of the 50 states that November.

But in 1992, it was the Democratic challenger, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, who led the incumbent, then-President George H.W. Bush, in September, with a 49 to 37 percent lead in the New York Times/CBS Poll from September 16, 1992. And in September 1996, Clinton held a 53 to 36 percent advantage with likely voters against Republican nominee Bob Dole.

In 2004, polling seemed to vary widely, with some polls taken in September of that year showing then-President George W. Bush with a 13-point lead over Democratic nominee John Kerry, but others showing a more even contest (Bush would go on to win 31 states and 50 percent of the popular vote.) And 2012 was a remarkably close contest in September, with then-President Barack Obama leading Republican nominee Mitt Romney by just 2 percentage points in a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted from September 26-29.

I reached out to Steve Kornacki, a political correspondent for NBC News, who told me that Trump is in “measurably worse political shape” than any incumbent who won reelection since 1980, a list that would include Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.

But, Kornacki added, “his position isn’t as weak as the two who lost. Bush ’92 and Carter ’80 both had approval ratings in the 30s at this point, while Trump is in the mid-40s. (Carter was able to defy gravity for much of the ’80 race because of doubts about Reagan, but those melted away late, possibly because of that late October debate.)”

Altogether, the national polls may not be as dire for the president as they appear, Kornacki said: “I’d say Trump’s behind, but only needs a few points of movement to have a real shot. Of course, with public opinion so entrenched, even a few points of positive movement may be asking too much for him.”

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