Four years ago in mid-July, polls said Hillary Clinton was leading Donald Trump by 12 points, much as they say Joe Biden leads him now.
The former secretary of State had 49% support compared with Trump’s 37%, according to a Bloomberg poll. Libertarian and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson — remember him? — had 9%.
Most confounding given the final results, 55% of those surveyed said they would never vote for Trump, while just 43% said the same about Clinton. The survey of 750 people was conducted shortly after Trump said a federal judge of Mexican descent couldn’t be impartial in a case against Trump University because of the candidate’s push for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
This comment earned him a stern rebuke from then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin — remember him? — saying Trump’s comment was “the textbook definition of a racist remark.” Ryan was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, the year Trump, while watching Romney sink during his second debate with President Barack Obama, said to himself, “I can win.”
What emerged from the Bloomberg poll, as well as dozens of others leading up to Election Day, was the inescapable conclusion that Clinton would win. Even Trump believed so, despite his rally-to-rally “winning” refrain.
In other words, what we think we know isn’t always so.
When Trump was elected in 2016, the news was received in the nation’s capital, where I lived at the time, like the arrival of unwanted, unexpected out-of-town visitors. Usually friendly neighbors stared vacantly at one another as they reached for their morning papers. Wordlessly, they quickly retreated back inside, away from the searing light of unbearable truth.
Everyone had been so sure! The models and internal polling had all agreed! But models and polls, like reporters and columnists, are only as good as their sources. And political history hasn’t been coy about the pitfalls of relying too heavily on textbook scenarios. Politics has a scent, and the nose usually sniffs out outcomes before the eyes can see.
Sweat equity wins every time. How much are people willing to wait in lines, make cold calls, give of their own money and rally strangers to support their candidate? Which candidate is most able to rally people to do the hard work? We speak in terms of authenticity, but that’s not the whole of it. For good or ill, winners have a certain instinctual allure.
This makes Biden’s current status as the front-runner a bit uncertain. Biden-in-the-basement has worked well so far, but he may not be able to compete with a fully unleashed Trump on the hustings. Trump is part showman, part chief marketing officer, part bomb-thrower.
Past elections remind us, too, that voters sometimes lay their own explosives when the pollster rings. Many won’t even take that call, or stay on it for very long. (This is such a problem that many pollsters have given up surveying by telephone.)
And when the calls do go through, other problems arise: Even in those places where Trump won handily last time, folks are reluctant to express political views. We’re still a relatively private and polite society, and nothing brings out the “bless-their-hearts” (genteel Southern code for a long eye-roll) like a conversation about politics.
Still other Trump supporters might say to a pollster that they will vote for Biden just to mess with the guy and his clipboard. Americans have a strong what-the-hell, troublemaking streak.
Four years ago, I wrote about that sort of voter: the kind who pulled the lever for Trump just to tick off all the right people. That same voter, likely well-entertained these past four years, is more concerned now about the socialist bent of the Democratic Party and whether Biden is strong enough to stem the tide. There’s also concern that Biden may not be as cognitively nimble as in earlier years, and that his vice-presidential pick won’t be seen as presidential.
Which is to say, Trump could win reelection despite his unfavorable numbers or the galloping pandemic. In his recent, free-ranging interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Trump defaulted to “fake polls” when asked about his “losing.”
“I’m not losing,” he insisted. And, contrary to everything we think we know, he may not be wrong.