A CNN poll released Thursday showed Trump ahead by one point. Other recent polls have shown a tied race or a narrow lead for either candidate. The RealClearPolitics polling average now shows Biden leading by a mere 0.4 percentage point margin — basically a pure toss-up. Polling in swing states has been more sparse this year, but most of the few that have been released have shown close contests too.
Some Democrats have responded with anxiety about what the polls show or cautious hope that there’s still enough time for things to change. Others question whether particular polls are on the level or simply argue it’s too early to read much into them.
It is early, and the polls will likely move around more in the next 14 months before the general election. Many things could happen: Trump could face criminal convictions, Biden’s age (or Trump’s age) could show more, the economy could take a turn for the better or worse. But if we ignore small short-term fluctuations, over the past year, polls have been telling a broadly consistent story of a very close race that Trump has a real shot of winning if, as expected, he wins the GOP nomination.
That meshes with some other things we know about the 2024 race. The same candidates ran in 2020 and it was very close then. And Biden has low approval ratings — suggesting a significant number of people who voted for him aren’t thrilled with his presidency, and that his campaign has a good deal of work to do.
It is early, but polls right now aren’t totally worthless
The conventional wisdom is that polls this far ahead of the election aren’t worth very much, because much will change before Election Day. There’s truth to that — the campaigns will help better frame the choice for voters, less well-known candidates can become better known as the election gets closer (though that may be less of a factor this year since both likely nominees have run before), and events can change voters’ minds.
Polling also fluctuates, so looking at even an average of polls in any one week or month is often unrepresentative, as the numbers could shift afterward.
And yet, looking at the polling averages on RealClearPolitics for recent presidential cycles for the year before the actual election year, they often aren’t so far off the mark.
- 2008: Barack Obama led most polls against John McCain throughout 2007, with a lead of about 5 points on average. In December 2007, the race closed to a tie or a narrow McCain lead, but by February 2008, Obama was back on top. He’d remain leading for the rest of 2008, except for two very brief stretches, and ultimately won the popular vote by 7.
- 2012: Obama led Mitt Romney by about 4 points on average for much of 2011, though his lead shrank to 1 or 2 points by the end of that year, and there were brief stretches when the average showed a tie. He continued to lead throughout 2012, until the first general election debate, when Romney pulled narrowly ahead. But Obama regained a very slight poll lead in early November and ended up winning the popular vote by 4.
- 2016: Hillary Clinton started with a big lead on Trump after he first entered the race in June 2015, but as he locked down more Republican support, he quickly gained a great deal of ground. By September 2015, Clinton still led consistently, but it wasn’t an enormous lead, just 3 or 4 points on average. In 2016, polls repeatedly see-sawed between showing a pretty big Clinton lead and a very close race. In the end, the close race scenario materialized, with Clinton winning the popular vote by 2 and losing the Electoral College.
- 2020: Biden had big leads on Trump in almost every 2019 poll, with his average lead fluctuating between 7 points and 10 points. From about December 2019 through June 2020, his average lead dropped to something close to 5 points. He regained his 7 to 10 point leads from summer 2020 through to the end of the race — but his actual popular vote victory ended up being 4.4 percentage points, with several key swing states being decided by less than 1 percentage point.
Now, if we look back further in time, there are some bigger misses. For instance, George W. Bush consistently had a double-digit lead on Al Gore throughout 1999, when the election ended up being one of the closest in history.
Yet that may have been the last gasp of an old era when true landslide victories seemed possible. The 2000 election ended up establishing the basic “red state vs. blue state” map of solid partisan loyalties that has shown up in every presidential contest since.
Since then, politics has been more polarized and party allegiances have been cemented for many more voters. So our starting assumption should probably be that the presidential election will likely be close — again. And right now, the polls back that assumption up.
Will Trump retain his Electoral College advantage?
Another reason tied national polls might terrify Democrats is that, in both 2016 and 2020, Trump outperformed his national numbers in key swing states.
Though Hillary Clinton won the 2016 national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, Trump won the “tipping point” swing state by 0.7 percentage points. In 2020, Biden won the popular vote by 4.4 percentage points, and the tipping point swing state by just 0.6 points.
So one way to think about this is that Clinton would have “needed” to win the popular vote by about 3 points to narrowly win the Electoral College. And Biden needed to win it by 4 points — which he only very barely did.
If we assume that situation will repeat in 2024, national polls showing Trump about tied would seem to herald solid victories for him in swing states. However, it’s not necessarily clear that it will.
A notable feature of the 2022 midterm election map was that Democrats lost ground in solid blue states like New York and California, while generally performing well in the presidential swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia. Notably, those were states where “MAGA” candidates closely associated with Trump were on the ballot, and where they performed poorly.
Underperformance in blue areas ended up costing Democrats control of the House of Representatives. But for the Electoral College, it would be meaningless, since Biden is in no danger of losing New York or California. Holding on in the swing states is far more important, if he can manage it.
But it’s too early to say for sure whether he can — midterm electorates are different from presidential year electorates, and infrequent voters inclined toward Trump could be more likely to turn out in these swing states next year. For now, the Electoral College situation should be considered an open question.
Since Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, there’s been a comforting refrain in some Democratic circles that any worry over troubling poll numbers is simply “bedwetting” — baby-like behavior, when really, mommy and daddy (your super-competent candidate and campaign professionals) have things under control. “Everyone chill the fuck out, I got this,” read the text over Obama’s picture in a famous meme.
Those assurances looked prescient for Obama’s two victories, but when they were offered days before Clinton’s 2016 defeat, they didn’t age well.
And though nearly the entire political world assumed Trump couldn’t win that year, in retrospect, the signs were there in the polls all along. Though Clinton had led Trump in polling averages consistently, that lead was often rather small. And some analysts pointed out in advance that the Electoral College map was shaping up to have a Republican tilt that year.
There are reasons to bet on Biden rather than Trump next year. Perhaps some Democratic-leaning voters are unenthusiastic about the president and yearning for alternatives, but would show up when it becomes unmistakably clear that the election is between Biden or Trump. Perhaps criminal convictions really would be the last straw for some would-be Trump supporters.
But there are danger signs for Biden too — like his erosion in support from nonwhite voters that the New York Times’s Nate Cohn has been writing about. And the more those extremely close polls come in, the more it looks like we’re embarking on another grim slog toward an excruciatingly close election.