It’s worth asking, then, how Biden looks as the contest transitions to a head-to-head fight. The answer, in short? About the way it did in 2016.
Consider the RealClearPolitics average of national head-to-head polling in the 2016 election. On April 8 of that year, Hillary Clinton led Trump by nearly 11 points — better than the six-percentage-point advantage Biden currently holds. But on April 8, 2016, Clinton hadn’t similarly locked up the nomination. By the time she clinched, in early June, her national lead over Trump was only two points.
(The horizontal orange line marks Clinton’s position in the polls June 6, allowing for easier comparison to where Biden is now.)
Her lead rose and fell over the course of the rest of the election, eventually landing a few points in front of Trump. That was about where the popular vote ended up, too. But, of course, the presidency is decided by electoral, not popular, votes.
Trump’s narrow victories in three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — gave him the White House. He wasn’t expected to win those states. By Election Day in 2016, Clinton held narrow leads in Michigan and Pennsylvania and a wide one in Wisconsin. Clinton was perceived as likely to win thanks largely to holding those states, but Trump overperformed relative to the polls.
That’s important context for considering where the polling sits now. Pollsters have broadly adjusted the way they account for education to avoid the sort of misses that Wisconsin in particular saw — but Biden still currently holds a lead in each state.
You’ll notice a few things about those graphs. One is that the Biden lines don’t always reach to the vertical blue line, a function of a relative lack of recent polls that could inform the polling average. Another is that in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Clinton’s lead over Trump had been narrowing in the days before the election, indicating that her losses in those states weren’t solely a function of polls that misfired.
That, of course, is an important thing to remember: Even consistent patterns in polling can fade at just the right (or depending on your perspective, wrong) time, shifting the outcome of a contest. We’re talking about polling seven months in advance of the general election. A lot can and will happen over that period of time.
In other states that might be important in determining the winner of the election, Biden’s current position is similar to Clinton’s at the point she clinched the nomination four years ago.
Florida is close.
Biden’s doing a bit better in North Carolina — though the polling there is quite a bit out of date, and there haven’t been many polls conducted.
He’s doing about as well in Arizona, setting aside the volatility demonstrated in the poll average. (That volatility is itself a function of relatively few polls. You’ll notice that in 2016 there weren’t enough polls in Arizona at this point in the cycle to compile an average.)
Another state with relatively few recent polls shows a picture that looks about the way it did four years ago.
Comparing the polling averages in each state at the time Clinton and Biden clinched the Democratic nomination, the most obvious difference is in Wisconsin — where, of course, it turned out that polling models were flawed.
It’s time once again for a standard set of caveats: It’s early, polls are snapshots in time, averages depend on numerous polls to better capture an accurate sense of the field.
After a presidential primary that was unusually dependent on perceptions of how the Democratic candidate would fare, the current picture is mixed. Biden looks about as well positioned as Clinton was in 2016. But the lesson learned in 2016 is that things can change a lot, fast.