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Story | Education
19 August 2020

Op-ed: Summertime U.S. presidential election polls are misleading


Image source: Matt Smith Photographer, via Shutterstock

The Al Maerifa Series, hosted by Texas A&M at Qatar, held a session on “Donald Trump is Recession Proof: Partisan Polarization and the End of Economic Voting in the United States”. Dr. Joseph Daniel Ura, who presented the session, writes his opinion on why he thinks President Donald Trump’s re-election bid is in trouble.

The United States is stumbling through the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis and a summer of ongoing protests against abusive policing and racial injustice, and President Donald Trump has so far failed to rally the country behind solutions to its most pressing problems. At the same time, the Trump administration continues to generate a stream of scandals and crises. These range from trivial name-calling battles with rival politicians to reports that President Trump overlooked Russian efforts to encourage Taliban attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.

It is hardly surprising that President Trump is behind in the polls. The latest public opinion surveys in the United States show President Trump badly trailing his presumptive Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. ABC News and the Washington Post’s latest polling shows that 55 percent of registered voters nationwide say they will vote for Biden with only 40 percent reporting plans to vote for Trump, for example.

Yet, despite these formidable headwinds, it is a mistake to count out the President.

Dr. Joseph Daniel Ura

First, incumbent presidents seeking re-election in the U.S. have important electoral advantages over their rivals. These range from their ability to take credit for actual achievements as president, command significant media attention, and draw substantial financial support for their electoral campaigns. Together, these advantages translate into an electoral edge for first-term presidents seeking a second term. Indeed, only once since World War II has a U.S. president failed to win a re-election – President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Second, the American electorate is more polarized along party lines than at any point in the modern survey research record. High partisan polarization means that Americans who identify as Republicans and Democrats are more ideologically separated from members of the other party and more ideologically similar to members of their own party. When polarization is low, Republicans and Democrats have more in common with one another, and individual voters are more likely to cross party lines and vote for the candidate of another party when their own party’s nominee is doing poorly. When polarization is high, Republicans and Democrats have less in common with one another and become more likely to simply cast their votes for their parties’ nominees rather than consider the candidates as individuals. In 2020, Republicans and Democrats are as divided as they have ever been in the last seven decades.

On balance, the division between Republicans and Democrats is good news for President Trump. Republican voters who in the past might have abandoned him because of the bad economy or the scandals facing his administration are now more likely to stick with his candidacy. As a result, it is likely that many of the Republican voters who are unhappy with the President, and tell pollsters they plan to vote for Biden, will actually cast a ballot for Trump in November.

The twin forces of incumbency advantage and partisan polarization are likely to prop up President Trump’s re-election campaign in ways that are not evident in today’s public opinion surveys. In ongoing research I described in a public lecture at Texas A&M University at Qatar, my co-author, Professor Christopher Ellis of Bucknell University in the United States, and I estimated a statistical model of U.S. presidential elections since 1952 that accounts for incumbents’ electoral advantages and partisan polarization. We then used this model to generate predictions of the 2020 election.

Image source: Joe Tabacca, via Shutterstock

Our model predicts that President Trump will lose the national popular vote in the 2020 election by only a very slim margin, garnering about 49 percent of the votes cast for the two major party candidates. This is about the same share of the votes he won in 2016 and may be enough to win a victory in the Electoral College and a second term in the White House.

It is important to note that our statistical model does not account for all possible influences on American national elections. For example, there was no pandemic in the United States on the scale of the COVID-19 crisis in the period of time used to build our model. So, it is feasible that voters in 2020 will judge the candidates in ways that sharply vary from prior elections.

Nevertheless, the key conclusion of our analysis is that the current polls are a poor guide to the November election. Yes, President Trump’s re-election bid is in trouble, but the 2020 presidential election in the United States is likely to be substantially closer than it now seems in most public surveys.

Dr. Joseph Daniel Ura is Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and Texas A&M University at Qatar. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he completed his undergraduate education in political science at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

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