On the Meaning of Polls

To pose the title of this post is to answer the question: Polls mean very little. If nothing else, President Trump’s victory in 2016 proved that even on the eve of Election Day, they are of limited value, and this far removed from Election Day, they simply provide fodder for talking heads – liberal or conservative, depending upon whose cause seems positively reflected in them. That said, I am a bit nettled to hear pundits starting to talk about Mr. Trump’s poor standing in the national polls. Under our Electoral College system, any polls that include the preferences of the citizens of about 35 of our states are irrelevant. The sentiments of the respective majorities of those states’ citizens are so firmly cast that it seems clear which Presidential candidate will receive those states’ Electoral College votes — whether the election is held next week or in November, 2020. Put another way: while indications of the President’s national unpopularity might provide an emotional salve to Democratic stalwarts, polls that capture Californians’ or New Yorkers’ intentions are pretty much a waste of time. Not only did Sec. Clinton lead in the national polling to Election Day, 2016, she … won the popular total. Didn’t do her a lot of good.

Although the relative current merits of the Electoral College in our federal system is worth and will likely receive a decent amount of discussion in the upcoming campaign, for the 2020 presidential election, the system remains what we’ve traditionally had. Without need of a lot of research, I found different pieces that collectively identified the following 14 states that arguably either the President or the Democratic nominee could win in 2020 (followed by their Electoral College total and who won them in 2016): AZ (11; DJT); CO (9; HRC); FL (29; DJT); GA (16; DJT); IA (6; DJT); MI (16; DJT); MN (10; HRC); NC (15; DJT); NH (4; HRC); NV (6; HRC); OH (18; DJT); PA (20; DJT); VA (13; HRC); and WI (10; DJT).

The candidates’ relative support in these states may be worth watching as the election draws closer. Below is a link to a Morning Consult website that sets forth Mr. Trump’s relative popularity throughout his presidency on a state by state basis. While polling results describing Mr. Trump’s standing seemingly have limited value until the Democrats settle on a candidate, this website’s findings (there are undoubtedly others that report similar statewide polling data) indicate that in March, 2019, the President was viewed more unfavorably than favorably in all of the listed states, except one – Georgia. In Michigan and Wisconsin, states that, along with Pennsylvania, put him over the top in the Electoral College, his unfavorable rating exceeds 10 points. Of the states won by Ms. Clinton, his unfavorable rating is 10 points or greater in all but Virginia (a worthy prize of 13 Electoral College votes, enough to offset a potential Wisconsin loss), where his unfavorable rating is but 4 points and he might reasonably surmise that Ms. Clinton’s 2016 victory was attributable to her running mate, VA Sen. Tim Kaine.


For those that enjoy watching poll numbers despite recognizing their limited value, a potential bookmark ;).

2 thoughts on “On the Meaning of Polls

  1. Jim,
    At a glance a valuable perspective. I find the polls instructive, whether or not predictive.

    It’s disconcerting to say the least that even after the revelations of Mueller’s report (preceded by a torrent of exposures of two years worth of trump administration corruption and chaos), the unfavorable spreads are as LITTLE as 10 and 13 percent. I appalled.

    Oh, well. Let’s face reality. As a society we’ve gone soft on corruption and dishonesty. Giving any president a pass on integrity — to this degree — was unthinkable not long ago. “They ALL lie,” is a refrain I hear from trump loyalists.

    I’ll be focused on what will be made of the integrity issue. Yes, of course, especially in swing states in the upper Midwest. The Dem candidate must take this shot with all the available ammo.

    Ten percent will shrink — not increase — I fear, as trump crows about a strong economy — especially if the economy remains strong and, ironically, that crowing is an undeniably truthful statement.


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