With less than three weeks until Election Day, I am almost calm about what might be the most important presidential election in my lifetime. On the one hand, a second term of a Trump administration would be an unmitigated disaster on several levels, so that outcome should be very concerning.
On the other hand, my prior opinion on this election was formed in April: “Trump lost the popular vote and barely eked out an electoral college victory in 2016. November’s election will be a referendum on his presidency, and the country will be worse off in every possible way compared with four years ago.” Ergo, Trump will lose.
So far, this expectation has been borne out. Joe Biden’s position has strengthened over the past three weeks, a devastating development for the Trump campaign. Trying to ram through a Supreme Court appointment has mobilized Democrats at least as much as Republicans. The first debate went very poorly for Trump, topped only by his contacting covid-19. Trump wasted months ignoring and then spurning a fiscal stimulus deal that might have helped him. His campaign’s efforts to gin up an October surprise are pathetic. To top it all off, Trump’s campaign is now in the same state as his private holdings: cash poor.
All of this is borne out in the polling data. Biden’s lead has been rock steady over the past six months. It widened a bit in June and then shrank a bit in August. In contrast to 2016, when Trump caught up to Hillary Clinton in the polls on multiple occasions, Biden’s lead has stayed safe.
CNN’s Harry Enten put the current race in blunt terms late last week: “A look through history reveals that Biden is in a better position at this point than any challenger since 1936, when the first scientific polls were taken in a presidential race. … The average of polls has Biden at around 52% or 53% and up by somewhere between 10 and 11 points. This is an unprecedented position for a challenger with a mere 23 days to go until Election Day.”
So why am I only “almost” calm? Because there are still uncertainties about the state of the political world. Twenty days seems like a long time away. Democrats will be more likely to vote by mail, which will also increase the probability of rejected ballots, particularly in pivotal states such as Pennsylvania. Some GOP governors and GOP-friendly courts seem awfully determined to limit ballot access.
What really scares me, however, is that the polls could be wrong. Pollsters have tried to learn from their 2016 mistakes, but between the pandemic, mail-in voting and the low response rate of surveys, uncertainties remain. Now, they could be wrong either way. Maybe the outlier polls are correct, and Biden is leading in Georgia by seven points. Or maybe they are understating Trump’s support, in which case Biden loses Florida and the Sun Belt states, and we all have to wait until the Midwestern states are counted to know who won.
The problem is that even intelligent Americans have difficulty distinguishing between probable and certain outcomes. FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a 13 percent chance of winning the electoral college; there is an even greater likelihood of a result that takes days to be determined.
If it turns out that the polls are wrong in a significant way in 2020, it will fuel cynicism across the political spectrum. Partisans would interpret a massive polling miss not as a result of extant uncertainty but a sign of something deeper. Some would retreat to conspiracy theories. Others would throw up their hands and declare the futility of the entire polling enterprise.
Even if Biden inevitably triumphed, my November nightmare is a world in which no one trusts polls or survey data anymore. Everyone instead operates on “truthiness.”
Skepticism is healthy for the social sciences, but cynicism is toxic for the enterprise. This year has already been too toxic. I hope election night proves to be a quick, predictable affair. In that outcome, not only will Trump lose, but so will the army of cynics dedicated to rubbishing some of our most useful tools of social inquiry. But I fear that regardless of who wins, the loser will be the rational application of survey data to political problems.