These 2 graphs show why Biden really has a better shot against Trump than Hillary Clinton had
Joe Biden is riding high. Multiple recent national polls show him leading President Donald Trump in the 2020 contest for the White House by double digits.
CNBC found the former vice president leading Trump by 10 points. Fox News just found Trump falling behind by 12. CNN even reported that Biden is ahead by 14 points — a statistic so eye-popping the Trump campaign, in desperation, demanded the network retract the poll. (It didn't.) And, as we could assume given the status of the national polls, Biden is also leading — though often by less — in a slew of swing state polls.
But some people find this hard to accept. Many, including me, believed that Biden's strength during the Democratic primary was based largely on name recognition and positive association, rather than his qualities as a candidate. Some commentators argued his star would fade once he gained the status as the de facto nominee.
There's another reason some people aren't that assured by Biden's polling numbers. The experience of 2016 is seared deeply in the minds of every political hobbyist. The chattering class was so confident that Hillary Clinton would win, so assured that Trump would lose, that the president's upset victory on Nov. 8, 2016, still reverberates today. It's likely the no amount of positive polls will allow Trump's opponents and critics to sleep comfortably.
The facts indicate, however, that Biden's polling strength is real and that he is in a significantly more formidable and secured position that Clinton was at this same point in the 2016 race. Two graphs of RealClearPolitics' polling averages demonstrate these facts clearly.
First, here's what Hillary Clinton's head-to-head polling looked like with Trump (with June 18 is highlighted):
Now here's Trump vs. Biden, up to June 18:
Before we get to any further analysis and caveats, just ask yourself this: If you were running against Trump, which polling history would you prefer to have for yourself? Undoubtedly, you'd rather have Biden's polling. If nothing else, that should convince you of my fundamental point: Biden is in a stronger position against Trump and Clinton was in 2016.
Now for the caveats. Trump could absolutely still win. Biden could stumble, or a new major scandal or development could upset the race in unpredictable ways. If coronavirus were to unexpectedly fade away and the economy were to recover more quickly than predicted, it's possible Trump's polling could rise and he could overtake Biden by Election Day, perhaps even by a substantial margin.
But if you want to know who is most likely to win, based on everything we know at this point, then answer is clearly Biden. And it's clear Biden is more likely to win than Clinton was at the same point.
At the same time, looking back on the Clinton polling reminds us why she seemed like such a lock at the time. The polling average almost always had her above Trump. There were a handful of moments where their trend lines converged or Trump briefly surpassed her, but they were short-lived. Often, Clinton was 5 points or more in the lead. Early on, before Trump was taken seriously at all, she led him by nearly 20 points. But even by March of 2016, when it was clear he was a real contender, she took a lead of more than 11 points. This general dominance, plus the pure absurdity of the Trump candidacy, fueled the assumption that not only was Clinton most likely to win but that she couldn't lose. This idea was probably reinforced by the 2012 election, in which polling averages clearly showed President Barack Obama had the edge over Mitt Romney. Republicans ignored this evidence and were shell-shocked by Romney's loss. The events just reinforced Democrats' and the commentariats' confidence in their ability to predict elections.
So what went wrong in 2016? RealClearPolitics' average gave Clinton a 3.1 point lead over Trump on the last day of the campaign. In the final count, she won the national popular vote by 2.1 points — meaning the poll average wasn't that far off. The problem was several key swing state polls were off by a significantly large amount. But had Clinton genuinely been 1 point higher in the national popular vote, it very well could have closed the gap in the key swing states and secured her victory.
The polls, especially state polls, could be off again now in important ways. But even a significant error would likely still put Biden in the lead. And it's important to note that even at Biden's lowest point against Trump, the race hasn't been as tight as it was the 2016 campaign ended. The best Trump has done is come within 4 points of Biden in the RCP average. It's possible that could be enough for Trump to win another electoral college victory, but it would be tough. And that's assuming that the 2020 race closes out with Biden campaign repeating the worst performance we've seen. We can't rule that out — it might be the result if Biden has a particularly disastrous debate performance, for example — but we shouldn't expect it or assume it's the most likely outcome.
CNN's polling expert Harry Enten argued in May that Biden's lead has been remarkably steady, and he's the strongest presidential challenger since scientific polling began. In a new piece on Friday, Enten argued that Biden even has a chance of winning landslide 400 electoral college votes.
Whenever Biden's lead is brought up, some object that it shouldn't even be talked about since it could make Democratic voters complacent. It's possible that's the case, but it's not guaranteed. People like being on the winning side in politics, so predictions that someone's candidate is going to win could give them more energy to go to the polls.
Regardless, though, I think it's important that people accurately understand the state of politics. Helping people understand it is a big part of my job. And the truth is that Biden is performing quite well against Trump, and we should, therefore, think he's most likely to win in November. Without this piece of information, you're not as informed about politics as you could be. Nothing's guaranteed, but those are just the facts.