Hypothetical general election match-ups don’t mean all that much… yet
By Patrick Murray
I was watching a news channel the other day when the resident pundit
opined that polls show Joe Biden to be the most formidable Democrat against
Donald Trump. “No! They do not. Stop saying that,” I shouted into the void.
There is a great deal of nuance in what these current polls really mean
versus how they are breathlessly characterized in the 24-hour media environment.
The main caveat for all 2020 polling is that
the campaign really hasn’t started as far as the vast majority of voters are
concerned. They simply are not paying
enough attention right now to offer carefully considered opinions. We pretty much say this every time we release
a poll, but journalists and pundits who eat, sleep and breathe the election find
it difficult to put themselves in the shoes of a typical voter for whom this is
still just background noise.
Even though interest in the upcoming election is astronomically
high, it’s not clear that voters are keeping up with the details yet. A recent Quinnipiac Poll found that 42% of voters nationwide are currently
paying a lot of attention to the 2020 campaign, which includes 48% of
Republicans, 45% of Democrats, and 36% of independents. In other words, the majority of voters are really
not tuned in.
To be sure, voters will talk about politics when you ask them – in a
poll or in the ubiquitous Iowa diner – but their opinions at the stage of the
race tend to be rather inchoate. In
fact, one candidate probably owes his spot on the debate stage this week due
mainly to the way his name was introduced in a poll of Democratic voters
who had previously known nothing about him.
A recent Monmouth University Poll in Nevada bears this out as well. Likely caucusgoers make up less than one-tenth
of all registered voters in the state, so it’s fair to assume they would be
among the most highly engaged. Of 24
Democratic candidates in the field, only three (Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth
Warren) had nearly universal name recognition and only ten candidates were
sufficiently well known to get a majority of these highly engaged voters to provide
an opinion of them.
Moreover, political “moderates” in this pool of likely Democratic caucusgoers
were even less likely to have opinions of the top ten candidates – to the tune
of about 7 points less likely on average.
It’s no surprise that moderate voters are currently much more likely than
liberals to throw their support to Biden.
It’s not just about ideology. He’s
the one candidate they actually know something about, whereas liberal voters tend
to be more familiar with many of the other candidates.
You have to be especially careful when looking at polls of potential
general election match-ups. The graph
below shows Trump’s support in head-to-head contests against four possible
Democratic nominees according to nine recent polls. Across each of these polls, Trump’s numbers
barely budge in any of these contests because voters are confident in their
knowledge of him.
Now, take a look at the same graph, but this time showing the four
Democrats’ support against Trump. The
graph is ordered based on name recognition, starting on the left with Biden, then
Sanders and Warren, with Pete Buttigieg at the end. There is almost a straight diagonal line in
voter support from the best-known candidate to the least-known in each poll.
Name recognition plays a significant role in whether voters are ready
to say they will support a specific Democrat against Trump, but it does not
impact how many voters say they will back the incumbent in any of these four
scenarios. These graphs also illustrate
why you’re probably better off just using a simple “Trump reelection support” question
at this stage of the race rather than any hypothetical head-to-head polls.
Voter engagement and candidate familiarity matters and will certainly
change. This is important to keep in mind not only for lower-tier candidates
who could eventually emerge as top contenders, but also for support of the
supposed front-runner as well. Even
though Biden already has universal name recognition, it does not mean that
opinions of him are set in stone. The
campaign will matter. The “Joe Biden” whom voters know today – or think they
know today – will not be the same candidate they are evaluating in the throes
of a competitive nomination battle five or six months from now.
The bottom line is that most Democratic voters will not really tune
into this race until the fall. This week’s debates will be a step toward
introducing them to a field of candidates they barely know. Of course, it goes without saying that pundits
will seek to immediately declare whose campaign is sunk and who is inexorably
on the rise because of their debate performances. But as far as most voters are
concerned, this will be a first look – and for many just a fleeting glance – at
a race that still has many laps to go.
The Monmouth University Poll made a commitment in the 2018 midterms to focus on a range of Congressional races that would help the public understand what factors were at play in this election. Monmouth’s polls in the final weeks of the campaign captured the trajectory of the race for control of the U.S. House. Specifically, Monmouth’s likely voter model results for four polls conducted in late October were very close to the final margins in those contests.
“We really wanted to focus on the important issues at play while conveying a reasonable range of potential outcomes. Our primary goal was not to predict results, but rather to tell an accurate story of the factors driving this election and the direction it could potentially go,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Monmouth’s polling in 13 competitive House races, plus one Senate race, depicted the unusually high levels of interest among voters this year. This includes an early Democratic enthusiasm advantage in the summer and Republicans closing that gap in the fall. In addition to the individual poll reports in these districts, Monmouth released additional analysis that gave an overview of the state of the race, first after Labor Day and again right before Election Day. These reports went beyond the “horse race” to examine the issues and dynamics at play in different regions of the country and among key voting blocs.
A notable innovation in the way Monmouth reported its findings in 2018 was showing the results for more than one potential turnout scenario. This approach pointed to a range of realistic outcomes and also conveyed the inherent uncertainty involved in election polling. These models were based on tests conducted in two special elections held earlier in the year, which accurately pointed to the dynamics in those races. Monmouth’s special election polling showed the Democrats gaining in both races over the final weeks of those campaigns, pulling ahead in the PA18 race in March, but falling short in OH12 in August.
Here’s my #2018Midterms HOUSE watch thread: Other forecasters focus on the numbers, but I’m more interested in themes. First thing is you can now ignore the national generic ballot and Trump rating – both have been stable for 4 weeks. As we learned in 2016, the national polls did not tell the story of that election. It was a set of regional stories that determined the outcome, e.g. breach of the industrial Midwest’s “blue wall,” Clinton’s ill-conceived attempt to expand the map into the Southwest, etc.
The 2018 House will be a regional one as well. While all the issues I am about to mention play out nationally, their impact is more of a factor in different regions. Let’s start in order of poll closings. We might see some early disappointment for Dems and hope for Republicans in places like #KY06 and #WV03. But these may be more of a sign that “red gravity” in the inland SOUTH is just too heavy for Democrats to reach escape velocity. If Dems pick up one of those, they are probably in for a good night, but we will need a little more data to see if they weren’t idiosyncratic victories.
The next region to focus on is the EAST COAST – this is where Dems look likely to pick up their largest number of House seats. This is where white suburban college educated women are the single biggest voting bloc. Those that have voted Republican in the past are not happy with Pres. Trump and not happy with their party leaderships’ unwillingness or inability to provide a check on that. In other words, they feel their party has left them. Combine that with high levels of enthusiasm among Democrats and you have the makings of a blue wave. The question is whether this wave could materialize here but dissipate as it tries to cross the Appalachians.
Virginia could provide the answer as it contains a number of competitive districts that could indicate how far a wave could travel if it materializes. First, if Republicans can hold onto #VA10, there is no blue wave – in fact, not even a turquoise ripple. But Dems winning that one seat does not necessarily get them to 218 in the House. #VA07 will be a key. If Dems pick up this seat, then they are almost certainly on the path to a majority. If Dems can also swing one or both of #VA02 and #VA05 then they are on the path to a very big night as we head west.
Next up is the MIDWEST. If the Northeast is largely a story of “Romney-Clinton” districts, the Midwest is where we are looking at “Obama-Trump” districts. But it might be more accurate – and easier to understand the dynamics there if we refer to them as “Change-Change” districts instead.
This region is more populated (relative to other regions) with voters who feel government is deaf to their concerns and that politicians are more interesting in protecting the interests of the “establishment.” Many of them still like Trump simply because he continues to destabilize the establishment. But they don’t necessarily feel that way about the Republicans running for Congress. Combine that factor with enthusiasm among suburban Dems who regret staying at home in 2016, and you have a recipe for another big haul for Democrats. On the other hand, the president’s recent appeals to his supporters to think of this election as him being on the ballot might be just enough for Republicans to hold on to many of these seats (although it’s not looking that way right now).
Then we move to CALIFORNIA and the SOUTHWEST. These are some of the most – and rapidly growing so – culturally diverse districts in the country. This may sound like good news for Democrats, but there are two problems. First, Hispanic and Asian voters are the least likely to show up to vote, especially in midterms. Second, Latino men are not monolithically Democratic – in fact they may be one of the biggest swing groups in the country. Democrats need to turn out a big number of first-time midterm voters. This group is a key ingredient for them in the East and Midwest, but early vote returns suggest they may be still lagging in places like southern CA and TX.
Republicans, on the other hand, need to hold on to a significant number of Latino men, as polls suggest they are doing now in the Southwest. One issue central to this is immigration, where many Latinos side with GOP policy. This is one region where immigration competes with health care as the top issue that voters say they are looking at when they consider their House vote. Republicans have a built-in advantage if they can get voters to prioritize concerns about immigration in their choice for House.
[Side note: if determining control of Congress comes down to Southern California, we probably won’t know the results for another month because apparently each county clerk there is provided with a single abacus on which to tally the votes.]
The bottom line is that we could see a blue wave in one or two areas but not in others. If you want to understand the “why” and not just the “how many” of party shift in the House, pay attention to the regional differences.