7 min read

The presidential race is — and always has been — tied

Every poll you see should be considered through that same lens.
The presidential race is — and always has been — tied

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Election Day is 196 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Key race alert: The conventional wisdom in the 2024 presidential race has shifted once again.

For months now, the media narrative has been that President Joe Biden’s slight polling deficit against former President Donald Trump made him something of an underdog in the rematch contest.

“Trump has an early lead on Biden,” Politico declared in March, adding that the ex-president was in “enviable position” in the polls. New York Magazine reported on Biden’s “polling slide; CNN said that the numbers showed that it “will be tough for Biden to defeat Trump.” Especially after Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report elevated attention to Biden’s age, chatter abounded that Barack Obama and other Democratic Party elders — including Biden himself — were worried about the 2024 race, adding to the sense that Trump was ascendant while Biden was in freefall.

That sense seems to be expiring, though, as a new narrative takes hold: the Biden comeback. “Biden Shrinks Trump’s Edge in Latest Times/Siena Poll,” the New York Times announced on April 13, a little more than a month after a previous Times/Siena poll helped kick off the Democratic bedwetting in the first place. The Washington Post similarly wrote this week about Biden’s improving polls, while Politico Playbook went so far as to declare a “Biden polling bump.”

But before Democrats get as excited about the latest polling movements as Republicans did about the previous trends, allow me to offer a reality check: The Biden/Trump contest is a tied race, and it has been this whole time.

One helpful indication of this came in a recent article from the Times’ insigtful polling analyst, Nate Cohn, who wrote that there had been “signs” of a pro-Biden polling shift since the president’s State of the Union address last month.

He included this chart to make his point:

Source: New York Times

With respect to Cohn (whose entire job, to be fair, is to detect these kinds of micro-movements in the polls) my main takeaway from this chart isn’t that Biden is suddenly on an upswing. It’s that the entire time Trump was the supposed “frontrunner” — in an “enviable position,” per Politico — he had an average 2-point lead. Which, to be clear, isn’t much of a lead at all, especially considering the average polling error at this point in an election is around five points.

Per RealClearPolitics, Trump’s average polling lead has never been above 4.3 percentage points this entire campaign, which means his “advantage” has never been larger than an average polling error. (The RCP average currently stands at Trump +0.2%.) In other words: This race is tied, and probably always has been.

The below graph, which shows the average of new national polls released each day (instead of over a longer period of time, like most averages) also drives home this point. As G. Elliott Morris of FiveThirtyEight noted on X, the graph suggests that pundits are being “way too aggressive” in over-interpreting small movements in either direction. “Say you draw a trend on this chart for each week,” Morris wrote. “In any given week here you end up with a line that fully reverts from the prior week. But in reality the line of best fit is just flat.” A flat, tied race may not be exciting news to report — but it’s increasingly clear that’s what we’re dealing with.

Source: VoteHub

When polling data is basically tied, there will always be ways for both candidates to construct narratives giving them the edge.

One way to look at this race is that if the polling is starting at roughly 50-50, you’d rather be the candidate with the better fundraising, larger staff, and ability to campaign without having to attend a daily criminal trial.

But then you’d have to remember that the other candidate has already won a presidential election in which he was out-raised, out-staffed, and bogged down by a litany of scandals.

The truth is, the polls offer data points for both sides to cling to. Trump generally performs slightly better among registered voters. Biden generally performs slightly better among likely voters. Trump is struggling among Haley voters. Biden is struggling among young voters and voters of color. Voters remember the Trump economy fondly, give Biden a historically low approval rating, and worry about his age and competence. But they’re also concerned about Trump’s trials, fired up about abortion, and don’t give Trump a very high favorability rating either.

And then there are a bunch of wildcards, including how third-party candidates will play a role — two new polls suggest RFK Jr. will hurt Trump more than Biden, but it’s too early to say for sure — and how Trump’s criminal indictments will play out. There’s also state polls to keep in mind, which have also been fairly tight, but with a slightly larger Trump advantage than the national polls have shown.

Source: VoteHub

Some analysts have suggested that Biden’s new lead in some polls — which is every bit as small as Trump’s old lead was — is due to Trump’s re-emergence in the news.

On its face, that theory makes sense to me. It would extend a years-long phenomenon in which Trump polls worse whenever he is in the spotlight — and Trump, now a criminal defendant, has certainly spent more time in the spotlight recently.

Biden has also been taking advantage of Trump’s absence from the campaign trail, traveling to swing states to make tailored pitches to key demographic groups, such as yesterday’s Earth Day event aimed at young voters.

But I would caution against going too far in trying to create a theory for why a candidate went from being slightly ahead, but within the margin of error, to slightly behind, but within the margin of error, in a handful of polls. That kind of change might be due to something tangible, but it also might just be evidence that a close race continues to be close and nothing more.

Something polls do consistently show is that voters are largely tuned out from this election — a new NBC survey found the lowest level of enthusiasm for a presidential race in decades — which makes it even harder to know which news events are breaking through, and which are escaping notice.

Here at Wake Up To Politics, my plan for the next few months isn’t to go overboard in polling coverage. I’ll mostly be looking past topline results, especially if they’re saying the same thing week after week. If a poll tells us something new that meaningfully adds to our understanding of the contest, I’ll let you know. Other than that, my focus will be elsewhere.

My advice for you is to do the same. If the next few months are anything like the last few — and my guess is they will be — plenty of polls will come out each week showing a slight lead in either direction. Instead of cheering the good news for your candidate and dreading the bad, my advice is to receive each poll you see with this same mantra: “This is a tied race, and probably always has been.”

Look at any new poll through that lens, and then ask yourself if the latest survey result does much to budge you from that prior. Is the lead outside of the margin of error? Is there evidence of any real shift in a key demographic group? Are the shifts in line with what other recent polls have shown? Above all: Does this tell me anything about the race I didn’t already know?

If it doesn’t, my advice is to shrug, go on with your day, and move on.

More news to know.

Trump’s defense comes into view, and more takeaways from opening statements at the hush money trial / Politico

The Circus Trump Wanted Outside His Trial Hasn’t Arrived / NYT

Could Trump Go to Prison? If He Does, the Secret Service Goes, Too / NYT

Pro-Palestinian protests sweep US college campuses following mass arrests at Columbia / AP

Biden Weighs Giving Legal Status to Immigrant Spouses of U.S. Citizens / WSJ

The day ahead.

President Biden will hold a pair of campaign events in Tampa, Florida.

Vice President Harris and Second Gentleman Emhoff will hold a Passover seder at the VP’s residence tonight.

The Senate will hold its first procedural votes on the House-passed foreign aid package. A final roll call vote on the bill is possible.

The House is on recess.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an immigration case and a labor dispute with Starbucks.

Donald Trump’s trial will take a pause as Judge Juan Merchan holds a hearing to consider whether Trump should be held in contempt for potentially violating his gag order in the case. Prosecutors allege that Trump has violated the gag order 10 times by attacking potential witnesses.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe