Emerson College polls: Post, and ye shall receive

Five days ago, I wrote about the sharp Republican shift since September 1, 2019 in polls conducted by Emerson College of hypothetical 2020 presidential election matchups between President Donald J. Trump and possible Democratic nominees. Emerson College is a high-quality pollster, rated A- and showing no partisan skew in recent elections according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s pollster ratings. What distinguishes Emerson College from other similarly high-quality pollsters assessing these matchups, though, is that the results they release have 0% choosing undecided or an unnamed candidate; this is likely, at least in part, because approximately 70% of Emerson College polls are conducted using automated voice response (aka “robopolling”).

[Eds. note: See August 2020 update]

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When I first wrote in June 2019 about Emerson College polls of these hypothetical matchups, it was to compare their results with those of HarrisX, a C+ pollster with a strong Republican bias of 1.3 percentage points (“points”). I calculated then that “[HarrisX”] polls have an average of 28.0% undecided between the named Democrat and Trump (or would choose a third-party candidate); I estimate these voters would break roughly 7-4 in favor of the Democratic nominee.” That rises to 2-1 if polls assessing former Vice President Joe Biden or United States Senator (“Senator”) from Vermont Bernie Sanders are excluded.

However, as though in response to my November 25, 2019 post, Emerson College just released results of hypothetical 2020 presidential election matchups in New Hampshire. They assessed five possible Democratic nominees: Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sanders, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang; they surveyed 637 registered voters between November 22 and November 26,  2019.

Actually, the FiveThirtyEight.com poll tracker lists two sets of results: one with 0% “undecided/other” and one with between nine and 12% “undecided/other” (mean=10.8%); note that the former results are based upon 547 voters, 90 fewer than the latter results. We can thus directly assess how those roughly 1 in 9 voters would vote if “forced” to choose; results may be found in Table 1.

Table 1: Comparing Emerson College Polls of Hypothetical Match-ups Between President Trump and Specific 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominees in New Hampshire

Democrat With Undec/Other Without Undec/Other %Undec/Other %Trump by Undec/Other
Biden D+4 D+5 12% 45.8%
Warren D+4 D-2 10% 80.0%
Sanders D+7 D+3 9% 72.2%
Buttigieg D+8 D+6 11% 59.1%
Yang D+5 D-2 12% 79.2%
AVERAGE D+5.6 D+2.0 10.8% 66.7%

Poll results with a non-zero percentage choosing “undecided/other” show the hypothetical 2020 Democratic presidential nominee beating Trump in New Hampshire by an average of 5.6 points, slightly higher than the 4.6 points I calculate using all polls released since January 1, 2019. Moreover, all five Democrats lead Trump by between four and eight points. Once “undecided/other” voters are forced to choose, however, that average drops sharply to 2.0 points; Warren and Yang now trail Trump. That is because, on average, “undecided/other” voters choose Trump 2-1; this masks a curious divide, though: when offered Biden or Buttigieg, the split is nearly even, but when offered Warren, Sanders or Yang, the split is closer to 3-1.

While not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison, “undecided/other” voters breaking 2-1 for Trump is an exact reversal of my June analysis, when analogous voters broke nearly 2-1 against Trump. This reversal feels…implausible…if only because for years, the general rule of thumb was that these voters would ultimately break toward the non-incumbent, perhaps by as much as 2-1, as the incumbent was such a well-known quantity that opinions were basically fixed: a voter already knew if they approved of her/him or not. Still, that “rule” no longer seems to apply, so the best thing to do is to continue to aggregate all polls as best we can.

At the same time, the Emerson College results, when applied to other recent polls of hypothetical 2020 presidential election match-ups, are…odd. For example, consider this comparison of national SurveyUSA (A rating, D+0.1; 3,850 registered voters [RV]. November 20-21, 2019) and Emerson College polls (1,092 RV, November 17-20, 2019):

Table 2: Comparing National November 2019 SurveyUSA and Emerson College Polls of Hypothetical Match-ups Between President Trump and Specific 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee

Democrat SurveyUSA Emerson College SurveyUSA

%Undec/Other

%Trump by Undec/Other
 

Biden

52%

D+13

49.5%

D-1

9% 155.6%
 

Warren

49%

D+7

50%

D+0

9% 88.9%
 

Sanders

52%

D+12

50.5%

D+1

8% 137.5%
 

Buttigieg

48%

D+7

48%

D-4

11% 100.0%
 

AVERAGE

50.2%

D+9.8

49.8%

D-0.5

9.2% 120.5%

In the four SurveyUSA polls, the hypothetical 2020 Democratic presidential nominee tops 50% on average, with a nearly-10-point lead over Trump and only about 1 in 11 choosing “undecided/other.” By contrast, the four Emerson College polls—with every respondent forced to choose either Trump or his Democratic opponent—show a dead-even race, with Trump edging the Democrat by 0.5 points, on average. But for these two sets of polls to exist simultaneously, not only would every single (or, in the case of Warren, 89%) “undecided/other” voter have to break for Trump, but a small proportion of Democratic-leaning voters would also have to switch to Trump as well.

Which, again, seems…implausible.

As always, caveat emptor.

Until next time…

About those recent Emerson College polls…

I first wrote about Emerson College polls here, using the fact their polls of hypothetical 2020 matchups between a Democrat and President Donald J. Trump force respondents to choose a candidate (i.e., have 0% “other/undecided”) to assess Harris X polls, which often have very high proportions “other/undecided.” At the time, I concluded “other/undecided” Harris X polls respondents likely would vote for the 2020 Democrat presidential nominee roughly 2-1.

[Eds. note: I have since updated this post here and here]

When I wrote that post in June, margins reported by Emerson College polls were broadly in line with those reported by other, non-Harris-X polls of these hypothetical matchups. Since the end of August, however, they have taken a sharply Republican turn compared both to previous Emerson College polls and to all other polls, based upon analyses of my WAPA (weighted-adjusted polling average).

Table 1 clearly demonstrates this pro-Republican shift.

Table 1: Polling margin for specified 2020 Democratic presidential nominees over President Trump, Emerson College vs. All Other Polls and January-August 2019 vs. September-November 2019

Biden–National
Emerson All Other
Jan-Aug 7.24 8.35
Sep-Nov 0.29 8.03 Difference
-6.95 -0.32 -6.63
Warren–National
Emerson All Other
Jan-Aug 1.52 1.82
Sep-Nov 1.29 4.66 Difference
-0.23 2.84 -3.07
Sanders–National
Emerson All Other
Jan-Aug 4.28 4.99
Sep-Nov 0.12 5.10 Difference
-4.16 0.11 -4.27

While the post-August-2019 Republican lean of Emerson College polls for the three current polling leaders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination—former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—is apparent, it is most notable for Biden. Thus, while in all other polls, Biden’s WAPA declined modestly from 8.35 to 8.03, in the Emerson College polls it dropped from 7.24 to essentially even! Put another way, there was a 6.63 shift Republican in Emerson College polls for Biden starting around September 1, 2019. The shift was similar for Sanders—4.16 more Republican in Emerson College polls and no meaningful shift in other polls. Warren, meanwhile, had a sharp increase in her WAPA—from 1.82 to 4.66—in non-Emerson-College polls after September 1, 2019, while dropping slightly in the Emerson College polls. Overall, across all three candidates, there was a 4.66 pro-Republican shift in Emerson College polls after September 1, 2019.[1]

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Before addressing what could have caused this shift, let us address what did NOT cause this shift. On November 5, 2019, FiveThirtyEight.com updated its pollster ratings, which I use in calculating WAPA. Emerson College was upgraded from B+ to A-, making it one of the highest-quality pollsters regularly assessing the 2020 presidential election. Moreover, Emerson College’s “mean-reverted bias”—how much more or less Democratic its average polling margins are compared to other pollsters in the same (already-concluded) election—barely changed, shifting from D+0.1 to R+0.0 (which I code as D-0.025). Finally, mean sample size of Emerson College polls—still of registered voters—dropped only slightly after September 1, from 1,120 to 1,043.

But what about other pollsters? If anything, the mix of pollsters assessing the 2020 presidential election improved after September 1, 2019, from B-/B to B, albeit with a slightly more Democratic skew (D+0.2 to D+0.3).

Moreover, here are the averages of unskewed pollster-average margins for Biden, Warren and Sanders across all pollsters with at least a B+ rating,[2] before and after September 1, 2019:

  • Biden: 9.3 percentage points (“points”) to 10.8 points
  • Warren: 2.4 points to 6.6 points
  • Sanders: 5.8 points to 7.5 points

Clearly, both the more recent Emerson College polls and the lower-rated pollsters are finding much closer races between each of these three candidates and Trump than are the higher-rated pollsters. And while I removed the skew from these margins, the higher-rated pollsters have a mean skew of D+0.5—so take these averages with a modicum of salt.

Nonetheless, polls conducted by pollsters similar in quality to Emerson College—albeit with some small percentage of “undecided/other” voters—show the three leading Democratic candidates increasing their hypothesized margins against Trump by 1.5 to 4.2 points after September 1, 2019, while the Emerson College polls show declines in support from 0.2 to 7.0 points.

So what gives?

There are two broad categories of possible, non-mutually-exclusive explanations.

  1. Starting September 1, Emerson College pollsters adjusted how they weigh their samples by various demographic factors, such that their polls skew sharply more Republican relative to other high-quality pollsters.
  2. Emerson College pollsters, perhaps because they force respondents to make a choice, are capturing a genuine pro-Republican shift in the electorate other high-quality pollsters are missing.

Taking each possible explanation in turn…

Emerson’s sampling methodology did not change after September 1, remaining a combination of Interactive Voice Response (i.e., “robocalls”) of landlines—but not cellphones—and an online voter panel. However, their sample weighting, based upon 2016 turnout, did change subtly—from age, region, income, and education in their August 2019 national polls to age, [interview] mode, party registration, ethnicity and region in their November 2019 national polls.

Given how strongly education is now associated with partisanship, especially among white voters, that could account for at least some of the difference. I am perplexed, however, how interviewing mode is associated with turnout—other than landline-users tending to lean Republican (older, whiter, less urban). For that matter, I am not clear why a poll of registered voters would adjust for turnout at all. Adjust for the relative proportions of these groups in the universe of registered voters, sure—but adjustment for participation rates (i.e., turnout) of various groups in 2016 seems more appropriate for a likely voters model. Still, without seeing the raw data, I will not even speculate how these changes in sample weighting would affect publicly-released polling margins.

There is, meanwhile, an argument to be made that the universe of “decided” voters has drifted Republican in recent months, especially with the announcement by Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) Nancy Pelosi on September 24, 2019 that the House would formally begin an impeachment inquiry into Trump. While polling at first showed approval for this action higher than disapproval, the difference is closer to even now as House Republicans have rallied behind a president of their party.

Also, while Democrats fared well in recent governor’s races in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi, the final actual margins were an average 2.8 points more Republicans than the final WAPA, perhaps reflecting a substantial Republican bias among “other/undecided” voters—essentially what the Emerson College polls might show. Moreover, the A+-rated Siena College/New York Times Upshot (R+0.3), recently released a set of state-level polls that also show leading Democrats faring less well against Trump than the consensus of other pollsters in those states.

While some combination of these two possible explanations—a change in sample weighting and an actual pro-Republican shift in the electorate—probably accounts for the clear shift towards Trump in recent Emerson College polls, it is entirely possible their last three national polls are showing these shifts purely by chance; even the best sampling strategy will be well wide of the mark at times (this is, in fact, the basic logic behind polling aggregation). However, three such wide sampling “misses” in the same direction and of the same size are extremely unlikely, though far from impossible.

In the end, the best those of us who track election polling can do is throw every publicly-available poll into the analysis, weighting, averaging and adjusting as best we can—all the while remembering that even the best estimates are just that, estimates.

Until next time…

[1] Values were similar for South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Senator Kamala Harris, but with each having only one post-August-2019 Emerson College poll assessing support versus President Trump, I excluded their polls from the analysis.

[2] IBD/TIPP, CNN/SSRS, Fox News, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, ABC News/Washington Post, SurveyUSA, Quinnipiac University. There is no post-August-2019 NBCNWSJ polling for Sanders.

November 2019 update: 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

With the fifth Democratic presidential nomination debate set for November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia, here is an updated assessment of the relative position of the now-18 (19?) declared candidates. Since the previous update, United States House of Representatives Member (“Representative”) Tim Ryan of Ohio exited the race on October 24, followed by former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke on November 1. The nine candidates who have abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee each exited with grace, class and dignity; I commend them for it.

However, rather than shrink the field to 17 announced Democratic candidates, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick entered the race on November 14, while others such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are strongly considering a bid—with Bloomberg even placing his name on the 2020 Democratic primary ballot in Arkansas. For this update, though, I exclude them from Table 1; the few recent polls listing Bloomberg show him registering between 0 and 3%, while no poll has included Patrick since he earned 1% in a McLaughlin & Associates national poll conducted February 6-10, 2019.

To learn how I calculate the value I assign to each candidate, NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here;[1] for recent modifications, please see here.

And, of course, here is the November 2019 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2019 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

Nov 2019 lighthouse.JPG

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Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019 (as of 11:39 pm on November 15, 2019), including:

  • 246 national polls (including 45 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls)
  • 34 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 34 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 11 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 28 South Carolina primary polls
  • 65 Super Tuesday polls[2]
  • 70 polls from 19 other states.[3]

There are now 488 total polls, up from 414 last month.

Table 1: National-and-state-weighted WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 28.5 20.4 22.5 26.8 36.6 27.4 26.2
Warren 16.4 18.9 18.2 18.6 12.6 18.8 17.3
Sanders 16.3 15.0 17.4 18.8 11.7 16.3 15.8
Buttigieg 5.6 13.7 9.0 5.8 4.0 6.0 8.1
Harris 7.3 6.0 6.3 5.6 7.4 7.1 6.4
Booker 2.2 2.0 1.8 1.5 3.0 1.5 2.0
Yang 1.8 1.9 2.2 2.8 1.2 1.4 2.0
Klobuchar 1.3 3.4 1.9 1.2 0.9 1.3 1.8
Gabbard 0.9 1.5 2.4 1.2 0.7 0.9 1.4
Steyer 0.4 0.03 1.1 3.2 2.2 0.3 1.3
Castro 0.9 0.6 0.2 1.0 0.3 1.1 0.57
Delaney 0.3 0.5 0.5 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.33
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.4 0.3 0.3 0.31
Williamson 0.3 0.1 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.2 0.29
Bullock 0.2 0.6 0.00 0.2 0.2 0.1 0.24
Sestak 0.02 0.02 0.05 0.1 0.03 0.1 0.04
Messam 0.00 0.00 0.02 0.00 0.00 0.05 0.01
DK/Other 12.9 12.7 12.5 10.5 15.8 12.0 13.4

The race continues to follow the same storylines. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (26.2, down from 27.2), primarily because of his 24.0-percentage-point (“point”) lead in South Carolina, itself down from 25.2 last month. However, he is less strong in Iowa, New Hampshire and (to a lesser extent) Nevada, where the two candidates battling for second place—Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren (17.3, up from 16.5) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (15.8, down from 16.1)—are closer to first place. And this more-inclusive version of NSW-WAPA overstates the gap between Biden and Warren; only examining polls conducted entirely after June 26, 2019, when the first round of Democratic presidential debates ended, Biden drops to 24.9 and Warren rises to 18.9; Sanders is at 15.4.

Rounding out the top five, overall and in the four earliest states, are South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (8.1—down from 7.1) and California Senator Kamala Harris (6.4—down from 7.6); Buttigieg surged passed a fading Harris (down 2.9 in two months), particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, where a top three finish in one or both states appears increasingly plausible. These five candidates account for three-quarters (73.9%, down from 74.6%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

In the next tier are five candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.3 and 2.1 who could yet rise into the top five: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar—essentially tied for 6th place—followed by Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. Other than Booker, these candidates rose in the last month, particularly in the early contests. Moreover, using post-first-debate polls only puts a little more distance between Yang (2.1) and Booker, Klobuchar, Gabbard and Steyer, tightly bunched between 1.6 and 1.8.

These 10 candidates—all of whom will be on the debate stage Wednesday night—total 82.5% of declared Democratic voter preferences. Of them, six—Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, Klobuchar—have thus far met the criteria for the sixth Democratic presidential nomination debate in Los Angeles, California on December 19, though Yang and Gabbard are close; not appearing on the debate stage for the first time, meanwhile, is former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who remains mired around 0.6.

The remaining six candidates and Castro divide just 1.9 between them; as none is remotely close to making the December 2019 debate(s), I expect them to end their campaigns by the end of 2019.

Speaking of the debates, 10 different pollsters—nine nationally[4] and one in Iowa[5]–conducted polls of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both before (but after the September 2019 debate) and after the October 2019 debate. Simple average differences in polling percentage (Iowa poll results weighted five times national results) show measurable gains for Buttigieg (+3.5 points), Sanders (+2.3) and Klobuchar (+0.9), as well as measurable declines for Yang (-0.6), Don’t Know/Other (-0.9), Harris (-1.0) and Biden (-2.1). Adjustment for pollster quality and the number of days between polls made no appreciable difference. These shifts are reflected in the changes in NSW-WAPA detailed above for each candidate except Sanders and Yang; the latter discrepancy may be due to the preponderance of low-weighted national polls in this calculation.

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Less than two weeks ago, I took a deeper dive into hypothetical match-ups between the declared Democratic nomination candidates and Trump—assuming he is the 2020 Republican presidential nominee, as well as post-mortem on recent gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi. Rather than repeat myself, however, I offer a few quick updates and a final look at the Louisiana gubernatorial runoff election to be held November 16 between incumbent Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone.

Kentucky and Mississippi. After the November 5 elections, I discovered a final poll[6] of the Kentucky governor’s race which gave incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin a six-point lead over Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear. Adding this poll dropped the “projected” margin to 4.0 points With Bevin conceding the race on November 14, Beshear actually won by 0.4 points, for a 3.6-point Republican “bias” in the results.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, Republican Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves beat Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood by 5.5 points, while my final “projection” was Reeves by 3.0 point, for a 2.5-point Republican bias. The average bias was 3.0 points in favor of the Republicans even though I “called” both races correctly.

Louisiana. Based upon 18 polls with an average Democratic “bias” of 0.1 points and B-/C+ rating, my “projection” is that Bel Edwards will beat Rispone by 4.7 points. However, I note two caveats. One is that 3.0 pro-Republican bias in two other southern states, implying a narrower Bel Edwards victory of 1.7 points. The other caveat is that when only the nine polls conducted after the October 12 “jungle primary” are examined (averages: R+0.4; B-/C+), Bel Edwards’ lead drops to 2.2. In other words, while a narrow Bel Edwards victory—say 2.0 points—is the likeliest outcome, anything from an extremely narrow Rispone win to a mid-single-digits Bel Edwards victory is plausible.

Notably though, even if Rispone wins by one point, Democrats will still have outperformed their “fundamentals”—how a generic Democrat would fare against a generic Republican given a state’s partisan lean, national partisan environment and incumbency—by an average of 16.3 points in three strongly Republican southern states just one year before the 2020 elections.

[Update, 1:00 am, November 17: John Bel Edwards was reelected by 2.6 points. With one last Trafalgar Group poll conducted November 13-15, the final “projected” margin was Bel Edwards by 4.5 points, a miss in the Republican direction of 1.9 points. On average, in the 2019 gubernatorial races in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, the final “projected” margin missed by 2.7 points in the direction of the Republicans, though all three elections were “called” correctly–and Democrats net one governor’s mansion. Also, the three Democratic gubernatorial nominees outperformed their “fundamentals” by an average of 17.5 points, which is extraordinary.]

Democrats vs. Trump. No sooner had I completed my most recent calculations than FiveThirtyEight.com updated its pollster letter grades and average partisan skew, analogous to the “bias” calculations I performed above. While the changes did not materially affect the Democratic nomination standings, they did have a slightly pro-Republican effect on general election polls.

Still, Biden would beat Trump nationally by 8.1 points, Warren by 3.5 points, Sanders by 5.2 points and Harris by 1.6 points, while Buttigieg would essentially tie Trump and Booker would lose by 0.7 points; Bloomberg, based on three polls, would win by 1.9 points. The other 11 candidates for whom I have match-up data would lose by between 5.2 and 12.7 points, although these numbers are misleading, as they are primarily based upon data from pollster Harris X, who tend not to push undecided voters to choose, making for unusual polling margins.

Weighted by a rough estimate of the likelihood of being the nominee (NSW-WAPA/.843), the 2020 Democratic nominee would beat Trump by 3.6 points. This is broadly in line with the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. However, once you exclude Biden and Sanders, the margin decreases to 0.3 points, with the caveat fom the preceding paragraph.

Examining available state-level results,[7] which actually decide presidential elections via the Electoral College, then comparing to my partisan-lean measure 3W-RDM implies Democrats would win the national popular vote by between 3.6 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 5.8 points, substantially higher than national polls suggest. Most encouraging to Democrats should be polls from North Carolina (R+6.0), Georgia (R+9.6), Arizona (R+9.7) and Texas (R+15.3), which show Democrats either barely ahead (Georgia) or within three points of Trump; on average, they imply a national Democratic lead of 8-9 points, confirming strong opportunities for Democrats in the southeast and southwest.

By contrast, however, a handful of polls from Democratic-leaning Nevada (D+2.0) who Democrats barely winning the state while implying Democrats would lose nationwide by between 1.4 and 3.8 points. And while Democrats are 4.0-7.5 points ahead in the swing state of Michigan, which Trump won by 0.16 points in 2016, their position is…wobbly…in Florida (R+3.4), Pennsylvania (R+0.4) and Wisconsin (D+0.7), all of which Trump won narrowly in 2016.

Still, at this very early point in the 2020 electoral cycle, the fact that Democrats are far more competitive in Republican-leaning states, albeit slightly behind, than Republicans are in Democratic-leaning states should encourage Democrats.

Until next time…

[1] Essentially, polls are weighted within nation/state by days to nominating contest and pollster quality to form a area-specific average, then a weighted average is taken across Iowa (weight=5), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (4), South Carolina (4), time-weighted average of subsequent contests (2) and nationwide (1). Within subsequent contests, I weight the 10 March 3, 2020 “Super Tuesday” states (Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) twice subsequent contests. As of this writing, I have at least one poll from (in chronological order) Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Wisconsin, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon and New Jersey.

[2] Primarily California (25). Texas (17) and North Carolina (8)

[3] Primarily Florida (12), Wisconsin (11), Pennsylvania (9) and Michigan (8)—not coincidentally, the four states President Donald J. Trump won in 2016 by the narrowest margins.

[4] Morning Consult Tracking, Harris X Tracking (Likely Voters), Fox News, YouGov, Emerson College, Quinnipiac University, Ipsos, Monmouth University, NBC News/Wall Street Journal

[5] Civiqs

[6] Trafalgar Group, October 29-November 1, 2019

[7] From 27 states: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, Utah, Virginia, Montana, Connecticut, Georgia.

Just under one year until the 2020 presidential election…how does it look for Democrats?

On November 3, 2020, one year from this past Sunday, the United States will hold its next presidential election; technically, the election will conclude that day, given early voting and vote-by-mail opportunities in many states. Once a month since April 2019, I have updated analyses of polling data on hypothetical match-ups between potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and President Donald J. Trump; for this post, I assume he will be impeached by the United States House of Representatives but not removed by the Senate. I make this assumption not because of any particular insight into the outcome of the Senate trial, but simply because polling data for other potential 2020 Republican presidential nominees, such as Vice President Mike Pence or former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, is sparse.

With the presidential election now one year away, here is a deeper dive into these polling data.

I Voted sticker

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First, however, here are the final polling averages for the two gubernatorial elections to be held on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.  In Kentucky, incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin trails Democrat Andy Beshear by 6.1 percentage points (“points”), though this is based upon only five polls, and only two conducted in October, with an average pollster rating of B-/B and an average Democratic “bias” of roughly 0.8 points; pollster quality is a letter grade assigned by FiveThirtyEight.com, and bias is a pollster’s average tendency to err towards Democrats or Republicans[1]. Plus, this state leans 28.7 points more Republican than the nation, according to my 3W-RDM, meaning the “fundamentals” (-28.7 3W-RDM + 5.7 Democratic edge in the generic ballot question – 8.5 Republican incumbency edge) suggest Bevin should win by nearly 32 points. Beshear should still be considered a slight favorite, but it would not be remotely surprising if Bevin won; with an astonishing gap of 38 points between polling and fundamentals, anything from a Bevin landslide to a narrow Beshear victory is possible.

In Mississippi’s open gubernatorial race, meanwhile, Republican Tate Reeves leads Democrat Jim Hood by 2.7 points, based upon 11 polls with an average C pollster rating and Democratic bias of 1.2 points. The fundamentals suggest Reeves wins by about 13 points, which more closely matches the polls. Reeves will likely win by a margin in the mid-single digits.

The bottom line, however, is that Democrats should not be competitive in either of these races, yet are within single digits in both.

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We have national-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between 16 of the 17 currently-declared candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and President Donald J. Trump; only former United States House of Representatives member (“Representative”) Joe Sestak has not yet been tested. Table 1 summarizes these match-ups; it includes all polls released publicly since January 1, 2019.

Table 1: Weighted-average national-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between 2020 Democratic presidential nominees and President Donald J. Trump

Democrat NSW-WAPA # Polls Pollsters

 

Wtd-Ave Margin
# Rating Bias
Biden 26.8 76 22 B 0.0 D+8.4
Warren 17.4 70 20 B/B+ 0.0 D+3.8
Sanders 16.0 67 19 B/B+ 0.0 D+5.4
Buttigieg 7.6 37 13 B/B+ R+0.1 D+0.2
Harris 6.9 56 18 B R+0.2 D+1.8
Booker 2.1 18 9 B-/C+ R+0.6 R+0.6
Yang 1.8 8 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.1
Klobuchar 1.7 10 3 B R+0.3 R+5.5
Gabbard 1.3 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+8.7
Steyer 1.2 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+5.0
Castro 0.6 9 2 C+ R+1.5 R+6.2
Delaney 0.4 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.4
Williamson 0.3 7 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+9.1
Bennet 0.3 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+7.3
Bullock 0.2 3 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+6.5
Messam 0.0 5 HarrisX C+ R+1.5 R+12.5
Weighted Average Democratic margin over Trump D+4.0

NSW-WAPA” is a 2020 Democratic nomination polling average that aggregates national- and state-level polling averages adjusted for pollster quality and time-to-election; early states are weighted more than later states, and all state polls more than national polls. Each candidate’s estimated margin versus Trump uses polling margins from which pollster “bias” has been subtracted before weighting by pollster quality and time-to-election[2]. Final estimated margins for each Democratic candidate are weighted by the value NSW-WAPA/.845[3] to produce an “overall” Democratic average margin over Trump; the denominator is the total of 17 individual NSW-WAPA values[4].

Each of the six leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination—former Vice President Joe Biden; United States Senator (“Senator”) from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders; South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg; California Senator Kamala Harris; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker—have at least 18 polls testing a hypothetical election between them and Trump. And for the first five candidates, the average pollster rating is a respectable B or B/B+ for at least 13 distinct polling organizations; the average for Booker is only C+/B- due to a preponderance of polls from Republican-leaning HarrisX (rating=C+, bias=+1.5); I have written previously about problems with HarrisX polls.

Overall, based upon a rough likelihood of each candidate winning the nomination, Trump would lose to the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee nationally by 4.0 points; Removing Biden’s polls lowers the margin to 2.0 points, while removing Biden’s and Sander’s polls lowers the margin to 0.6 points. Nonetheless, each of the six leading candidates either beats Trump nationally (Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Harris) or loses by less than one point (Booker). Unfortunately, the final estimated margins for the remaining 10 candidates in the table, including entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, businessman Tom Steyer and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, should be taken with a few pounds of salt due to the preponderance of HarrisX polls of these match-ups; for every candidate except Klobuchar and Castro they are the only publicly-available polls.

There are reasons besides these admittedly-very-early polls to argue the Democratic presidential nominee will win the national popular vote in 2020 by around 3-4 points—where Warren polls right now. In fact, Warren’s 3.8-point margin is very close to the 3.3-point-average Democratic margin in the last six presidential elections, which include three incumbents seeking reelection (Bill Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Barack Obama in 2012) and three open seats (2000, 2008, 2016); Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 by 3.9 points. As usual, presidential election data from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Also, relative support for a Democratic candidate versus Trump is directly related to how well that candidate currently fares in the presidential nomination process, itself a proxy for name recognition; the correlation between the final estimated margin and NSW-WAPA is 0.90, suggesting the better known a Democrat becomes, the better (s)he polls versus Trump; Democrats are that eager to defeat the president.

Finally, some very back-of-the-envelope math suggests the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee is likely to improve over 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2.1-point margin over Trump. For one thing, while Trump remains nearly as unpopular as he was on election day 2016 (38% favorable then, 41% job performance approval now[5]), he will likely not face a nearly-equally-unpopular Democratic nominee in 2020. Voters who chose Trump as, hypothetically, the lesser of two evils now know what he is like as a president; the Democratic nominee now represents the blank slate, for better or for worse. More to the point, however, it is difficult to envision more than a small handful of the 65,853,625 voters who chose Clinton in 2016 switching to Trump, whereas switching in the other direction strikes me as far more plausible. But even if the vote switches roughly cancel out, there are 8,261,498 third party 2016 votes to consider, an unusually-high 6.0% of the total national popular vote. Let us assume half of those voters switch to one of the two major party candidates in 2020, and that they split roughly 2-1 for the Democrat, based on the idea voters who wanted to vote against Trump in 2016 but could not stomach voting for Clinton voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Jill Stein or Independent Evan McMullin. Using the six-election average increase in the total national popular vote over the previous election of 4.9%, that works out to about 72 million Democratic votes (50.0%), 67.5 million Republican votes (46.9%) and 4.3 million third party votes (3.1%)—and a Democratic margin of 3.1 points.

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Of course, it is the Electoral College, not the national popular vote, that determines the winner of presidential elections. Using 3W-RDM, if the Democratic nominee won by 4,0 points, (s)he would be expected to win 308 electoral votes (EV), although the race in Florida would be very close, more than the 270 EV necessary to win the presidency. Given an average error of 5.3 points, however, the Democratic EV total could be anywhere from 222 to 347. If the Democratic nominee only won by 0.6 points, though, (s)he would either lose with 259 EV or win with 279 EV, pending a likely recount in Pennsylvania[6]; the range of Democratic EV in this scenario is 191 to 314.

However, it is not necessary to rely solely on “fundamentals” calculations (i.e., national average plus 3W-RDM), as we have at least one hypothetical match-up poll from 26 states, including every relatively competitive state except Georgia. Table 2 summarizes these data, with polling averages in boldface; Democratic “wins” are italicized. Each row containing polling data has two values: the final weighted-adjusted average and, in parentheses, the extrapolated national popular vote margin based upon 3W-RDM. For example, Biden is currently ahead by 10.3 points in Michigan (which Trump won in 2016 by 0.2 points), but because Michigan averages 2.2 points more Democratic than the nation, that implies Biden is winning the national popular vote by 10.3-2.2=8.1 points, very close to his 8.4-point national polling average.

Table 2: Weighted-average state-level polling data for hypothetical match-ups between leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and President Donald J. Trump

State EV 3W-RDM Biden Warren Sanders Buttigieg Harris
DC 3 82.0 D+90.4 D+85.8 D+87.4 D+82.2 D+83.5
Hawaii 4 34.3 D+42.7 D+38.1 D+39.7 D+34.5 D+36.1
Vermont 3 27.7 D+36.1 D+31.5 D+33.1 D+27.9 D+29.5
California 55 23.2 D+28.4

(D+5.2)

D+21.9

(D+1.3)

D+26.7

(D+3.4)

D+20.0

(R+3.2)

D+22.4

(R+0.8)

Maryland 10 22.6 D+31.0 D+26.4 D+28.0 D+22.8 D+24.4
Massachusetts 11 22.1 D+37.9

(D+15.8)

D+25.9

(D+3.8)

D+27.9

(D+5.8)

D+22.3 D+23.9
New York 29 21.6 D+30.0 D+25.4 D+27.0 D+21.8 D+23.4
Rhode Island 4 18.0 D+26.4 D+21.8 D+23,4 D+18.2 D+19.8
Illinois 20 14.7 D+23.1 D+18.5 D+20.1 D+14.9 D+16.5
Connecticut 7 12.8 D+19.0

(D+6.2)

D+14.0

(D+1.2)

D+16.0

(D+3.2)

D+12.0

(R+0.8)

D+13.0

(R+0.2)

Delaware 3 12.5 D+20.9 D+16.3 D+17.9 D+12.7 D+14.3
Washington 12 12.1 D+21.8

(D+9.7)

D+20.5

(D+8.3)

D+21.4

(D+9.3)

D+12.9

(D+0.8)

D+13.9

(D+1.8)

New Jersey 14 12.0 D+20.4 D+15.8 D+17.4 D+12.2 D+13.8
Oregon 7 8.7 D+17.1 D+11.5 D+14.1 D+8.9 D+10.5
New Mexico 5 6.5 D+14.9 D+10.3 D+11.9 D+6.7 D+8.3
Maine 4 5.9 D+8.7

(D+2.8)

D+7.7

(D+1.8)

D+8.3

(D+2.4)

D+6.6

(D+0.7)

D+5.0

(R+0.9)

Michigan 16 2.2 D+9.0

(D+6.8)

D+4.5

(D+2.3)

D+7.5

(D+5.3)

D+2.8

(D+0.6)

D+4.1

(D+1.9)

Colorado 9 2.2 D+9.2

(D+7.0)

D+6.9

(D+4.7)

D+9.9

(D+7.7)

D+9.9

(D+7.7)

D+2.9

(D+0.7)

Nevada 6 2.0 D+1.4

(R+0.6)

R+2.8

(R+5.0)

D+0.1

(R+1.9)

R+4.4

(R+6.4)

R+0.8

(R+2.8)

Minnesota 10 1.5 D+12.7
(D+11.2)
D+11.7
(D+10.2)
D+9.7

(D+8.6)

D+1.6 D+3.3
Virginia 13 1.5 D+10.5

(D+9.0)

D+7.0

(D+5.5)

D+4.2

(D+2.7)

D+1.7 D+11.0

(D+9.5)

Wisconsin 10 0.7 D+5.9

(D+5.2)

D+1.1

(D+0.4)

D+4.5

(D+3.8)

R+1.3

(R+2.0)

D+0.1

(R+0.6)

New Hampshire 4 0.1 D+10.2

(D+10.1)

D+0.6

(D+0.5)

D+6.7

(D+6.6)

D+2.3

(D+2.2)

D+6.4

(D+6.3)

Pennsylvania 20 -0.4 D+4.5

(D+4.9)

D+0.04

(D+0.3)

D+2.8

(D+3.2)

R+3.8

(R+3.4)

D+0.3

(D+0.7)

Florida 29 -3.4 D+2.3

(D+5.7)

R+0.2

(D+3.2)

R+0.2

(D+3.2)

R+1.0

(D+2.4)

R+2.9

(D+0.5)

Iowa 6 -4.7 R+0.4

(D+4.3)

R+3.9

(D+0.8)

R+0.9

(D+3.8)

R+3.5

(D+1.2)

R+6.8

(R+2.1)

Ohio 18 -5.8 D+4.9

(D+10.7)

D+1.4

(D+7.2)

D+1.8

(D+7.6)

R+1.8

(D+4.0)

R+1.8

(D+4.0)

North Carolina 15 -6.0 D+1.8

(D+7.8)

R+1.5

(D+5.5)

R+0.2

(D+5.8)

R+3.0

(D+3.0)

R+3.7

(D+2.3)

Georgia 16 -9.6 R+1.0 R+6.1 R+4.3 R+9.5 R+7.8
Arizona 11 -9.7 D+1.8

(D+11.5)

R+0.8

(D+9.1)

R+6.0

(D+3.7)

R+3.6

(D+6.1)

R+6.7

(D+3.0)

Texas 38 -15.3 D+0.4

(D+15.7)

R+3.3

(D+12.0)

R+0.7

(D+14.7)

R+5.3

(D+10.0)

R+5.2

(D+10.1)

South Carolina 9 -15.7 R+11.3

(D+4.4)

R+12.1

(D+3.6)

R+15.7

(D+0.0)

R+15.5 R+17.4

(R+1.7)

Missouri 10 -15.9 R+11.3

(D+4.6)

R+15.1

(D+0.8)

R+16.7

(R+0.8)

R+15.4 R+17.1

(R+1.2)

Indiana 11 -16.3 R+7.9 R+12.5 R+10.9 R+15.8 R+14.5
Mississippi 6 -18.5 R+10.1 R+14.7 R+13.1 R+18.0 R+16.7
Montana 3 -18.6 R+7.0

(D+11.6)

R+9.0

(D+9.6)

R+8.0

(D+10.6)

R+18.4 R+10.0

(D+8.6)

Alaska 3 -19.2 R+4.1

(D+15.1)

R+15.1

(D+4.1)

R+6.1

(D+13.1)

R+13.1

(D+6.1)

R+17.1

(D+2.1)

Louisiana 8 -22.2 R+13.8 R+18.4 R+16.8 R+22.0 R+20.4
Kansas 6 -23.4 R+15.0 R+19.6 R+18.0 R+23.2 R+21.6
Nebraska 5 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
South Dakota 3 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
Tennessee 11 -25.8 R+17.4 R+22.0 R+20.4 R+25.6 R+24.0
Arkansas 6 -28.2 R+19.8 R+24.4 R+22.8 R+28.0 R+26.4
Alabama 9 -28.4 R+20.0 R+24.7 R+23.0 R+28.2 R+26.6
Kentucky 8 -28.7 R+15.5

(D+13.2)

R+32.6

(R+3.9)

R+22.6

(D+6.1)

R+32.6

(R+3.9)

R+26.9
North Dakota 3 -29.4 R+21.0

(D+8.4)

R+25.6 R+24.0 R+29.3 R+27.5
Utah 6 -33.1 R+1.3

(D+31.8)

R+3.3

(D+29.8)

D+5.7

(D+38.8)

R+20.3

(D+12.8)

R+15.3

(D+17.8)

Idaho 4 -34.2 R+25.8 R+30.4 R+28.8 R+34.0 R+32.4
West Virginia 5 -35.5 R+27.1 R+31.7 R+30.1 R+35.3 R+33.5
Oklahoma 7 -38.1 R+29.7 R+34.3 R+32.7 R+37.9 R+36.3
Wyoming 3 -45.7 R+37.3 R+41.7 R+40.3 R+45.5 R+43.9
TOTAL EV 390 271/291 297 243 273

There is a lot to unpack in this table, so here are some highlights:

  1. Biden would resoundingly beat Trump, but other top Democrats could easily defeat Trump as well.

Based upon polling averages and fundamentals calculations, Biden would most likely win 390 EV, even more than Bill Clinton’s 379 EV in 1996 and Obama’s 365 EV in 2008. However, if we allow states where the table margin has an absolute value less than 3.0 points to be “won” be either major party candiates, he could finish with as few as 292 EV—still 22 more than needed—or as high as 412 EV, a number on par with George H. W. Bush’s 426 EV in 1988; the senior Bush was the last president to top 400 EV.

However, I would not put too much stock in the single set of match-up polls from Utah (R+33.1), which imply Democrats winning the national popular vote by anywhere from 13 to 39 points, despite the pollster, Y2 Analytics having a B rating and a slight Democratic skew of 0.3 points; the polls, which also have Booker winning Utah by 12 points, were conducted on just 144 registered voters between July 31, and August 6, 2019. It is nearly impossible to envision ANY Democrat winning Utah’s six EV.

Meanwhile, Warren, Sanders and Harris would be slightly favored based on these polling averages and fundamentals calculations, with Warren literally winning Pennsylvania by something like 3,000 votes. Warren’s range is 239-352 EV, Sanders’s range is 242-379 EV, and Harris’ range is 243-326 EV. Buttigieg, finally, would be a slight underdog, with a range of 200-300.

Taking a much wider view, however, incumbent presidents should not be trailing at all at this point, and especially not to five or possibly six Democrats. In many ways, this race feels like late 1979, when a wide range of Republicans were eager to challenge an unpopular Jimmy Carter—whose own election had been something of a fluke in 1976, based on revulsion with the Watergate scandal. With all that, however, Carter won a narrow victory over a weakened incumbent Gerald Ford, at a time when Republicans had won four of the six previous presidential elections. At this point, the polls were close—though Republican Ronald Reagan, often seen as “too extreme” to beat an incumbent, ultimately won a 9.7-point landslide and the Electoral College 489-49.

  1. Democrats are doing better on Republican turf than Republicans are on Democratic turf.

Extrapolating from individual-state polling averages, the “typical” Democratic presidential nominee would win the national popular vote by either 5.6 (median) or 6.6 points (mean), both substantially higher than the average 4.0-point margin of actual national polls. Given extreme outliers like Utah, the median is likely the more valid measure. Remove Biden’s data, and the extrapolated national margins are 3.8 (median) and 4.9 (mean); remove Biden’s and Sander’s data yields margins of 2.5 and 4.0 points.

Why do state polls paint a rosier picture for Democrats? Consider Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona Texas, Montana, Alaska, Kentucky and, yes, Utah. Trump won each of these states in 2016 by at least 3.5 points, and they have a mean 3W-RDM of R+17.0. And yet, in these states the extrapolated national popular vote margin for each Democratic candidate mostly exceeds her/his calculated average national margin. In fact, the correlation between 3W-RDM and “excess extrapolated Democratic national popular vote margin” is -0.46, implying that the more Republican the state, the more Democratic state polling “overperforms” national polling. This should be extremely encouraging for Democrats.

The flip side, however, is a number of states where Democrats are underperforming, most notably in Nevada, whose six EV look dicey right now, despite it being a D+2.0 state. For all that, every other core Democratic state looks good for Democrats

Democratic support also looks wobbly in the vital swing states of Pennsylvania (R+0.4) and Wisconsin (D+0.7). Still, in Pennsylvania, Warren is no worse than tied, while Buttigieg is “only” 3.8 points behind, and in Wisconsin, Harris is no worse than tied, while Buttigieg is only 1.3 points behind. Plus, Michigan (D+2.2)—the third state, along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that delivered the Electoral College to Trump in 2016 by less than 77,000 total votes—and New Hampshire (D+0.1) look solid for Democrats right now, with Florida (R+3.4) very much in play.

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The values discussed here, of course, should be taken with multiple grains of salt. It is impossible to know, for example, how the rapidly-unfolding impeachment process or changes in the economy will affect voters’ decision-making. An unforeseen crisis, domestic or foreign, could fundamentally change perceptions of Trump’s job performance—for better or for worse—as could something like a bipartisan massive infrastructure bill. Undecided and truly “independent” votes could break heavily for either party’s nominee—or they could split right down the middle.

Nonetheless, I would much rather be the Democratic presidential nominee than Trump right now.

Until next time…

[1] All calculations made prior to FiveThirtyEight publishing updated pollster ratings on November 5, 2019.

[2] Final nomination and presidential election values, nationally or at state-level, are the average of two  weighted-adjusted averages: irrespective of pollster and adjusted for pollster.

[3] Sum of NSW-WAPA across 17 candidates

[4] Overall Democratic margin does not substantially change if NSW-WAPA is calculated only using polls released since the first Democratic presidential candidate debates held on June 26-27 2019.

[5] I realize these metrics assess slightly different concepts, but job performance is a) a slightly better predictor of vote choice and b) cannot be measured prior to being in office.

[6] And possibly New Hampshire