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What If the Trump-Biden Polls Are Wrong?


What if the polls are wrong? The thought keeps nervous Democrats awake at night. The polls in crucial Midwest states were off by around five points in Trump’s favor in 2016, and Democrats have armed themselves with a don’t-get-fooled-again attitude toward the supposedly fickle numbers throughout the 2020 race. There have been just enough scary polls—like Saturday night’s Iowa poll from the respected Ann Selzer showing Biden trailing by seven points (the average before then had the race dead even)—to fuel nightmares of another late-breaking wave of working-class white voters. As of this morning, 538 has Biden at 90% to win, but last night, Nate Silver laid out an excruciating Trump victory scenario revolving around Pennsylvania polls being off.

But 2020 is not 2016 in a number of important ways. As the race closes, Joe Biden’s lead is significantly higher than Hillary Clinton’s was—he’s more than twice as far ahead—and while 2016 was a volatile race in which Clinton’s lead expanded and contracted right up until Election Day, Biden’s lead in 2020 has been a stable one, slowly expanding to his current nine points over the course of the past tumultuous nine months. And yet, the fear remains. What if? What if the polls are wrong?

Well, one thing that might happen if the polls are wrong is that Joe Biden will win by a lot. No, more than that. Like, a lot a lot. It’s important to remember that 2016 was not the only election in which the polls were imprecise. You only have to go back as far as 2012 to find an example of a time when polls missed in favor of the Republicans—national polls gave Barack Obama only a slim edge before the election, but he eventually won by four points. If election night is like 2012, Biden’s nine-point lead would turn into 13, complete with comfortable margins in more than enough states to have the presidency sewn up (and with a margin big enough to nullify Republicans’ efforts to litigate the result) by bedtime.

A 2012-level polling miss in Biden’s favor would mean that he notches comfortable wins of between three and five points in Florida and North Carolina, which have the practical and legal infrastructure in place to count ballots quickly—meaning that as long as they aren’t super close, we’ll know their results on election night. A Biden win in these two states effectively ends Trump’s presidency. And a comfortable Biden win by margins unforeseen in this year’s polling means there’s probably a lot of other good news in store for Democrats as well.

In addition to ensuring wins across the upper Midwest, where Biden’s polling already gives him robust leads in Michigan and Wisconsin and a solid lead in Pennsylvania, a miss in his direction would put Arizona firmly in his column, along with more closely contested states like Georgia and Iowa. Depending on the magnitude of the miss, it would also give him a fighting chance at Ohio and, stunningly, a real chance to win the Democrats’ great white whale, Texas. Right now, 538 gives Biden a 36% chance of winning the state, or a 7% higher chance than it gave Trump of beating Hillary Clinton four years ago.

But it’s not just that Biden can run up the score in the Electoral College. A polling miss in Democrats’ favor could also have massive implications for which party controls the Senate, and whether a President Biden gets to enact his agenda. Right now, there are a number of extremely tight Senate races, with Iowa a toss-up and Democrats narrowly favored to flip two seats in Maine and North Carolina, and to win comfortably in Colorado and Arizona, while only losing Alabama. That would give them a narrow 51-49 majority. However, 538 gives the Democrats at least a 20% chance of winning in five more races. A polling error that misses Democratic strength means that instead of sweating the presidential race, we should keep in mind that Senate seats in Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas, Montana, and even Alaska will come right down to the wire (a second Georgia Senate seat is almost certain to end up in a run-off in January as well).





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