Michigan and Wisconsin Polling Is More Reliable Now Than 2016
Bill Ruthhart, along with pollsters Charles Franklin and Barry Burden, have an extensive analysis of the state of the 2020 presidential election in the important states of Michigan and Wisconsin up on the Chicago Tribune. On Election Day 2016, the polls showed Hillary Clinton with a nearly 4 percentage point lead in Michigan and a 6-point lead in Wisconsin, but Republican Donald Trump would go on to win both states by less than 1 point.
Of 28 Wisconsin polls conducted in 2016, all of them showed Clinton with the lead, according to polling data tracked by Real Clear Politics. In Michigan, 36 of 37 polls had Clinton ahead. And yet Trump’s victories in both states won him the presidency.
A little more than a week out from this year’s election, the polls are offering a similar narrative with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden ahead of Trump by an average of about 5 points in Wisconsin and nearly 8 points in Michigan. All told, just six of 104 polls conducted in the two states this year have shown Trump with a lead — and just two in the last two months.
The president’s campaign and Republican leaders in both states contend the race is closer than the surveys show — especially the recent polls that have Biden opening up a double-digit lead following the first debate and Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. They cite 2016 as a reason to be skeptical of the polls. Should it be?
Michigan And Wisconsin: 2016 v. 2020
Trump ended up winning Michigan and Wisconsin (along with Pennsylvania) by less than 1 percentage point. The errors are thought to largely be the result of less than sophisticated polling operations and undecided voters. There are less of both this year.
At this time four years ago, polls in Michigan and Wisconsin had anywhere between 10% and 15% undecided voters. This year, that number is closer to 5% leaving less room for volatility late in the race like we saw in 2016 when undecided voters unexpectedly broke big for Trump. Wisconsin exit polls in 2016 showed late undecided voters backing Trump by a 2-to-1 margin.
To better account for that phenomenon, pollsters have added questions to polls this year pressing undecided voters on who they’d cast a ballot for if they had to vote that day. That has helped them to conduct a statistical analysis on how those few undecided voters might break this time. So far, they are splitting evenly between Trump and Biden, making it less likely for a last-minute dramatic shift in support.
Four years ago, Trump and Clinton were both historically unpopular candidates. That’s less of a factor this year, both pollsters agreed. Trump is more popular with the GOP base than he was in 2016 and Biden has a much higher favorability rating among voters at large than Clinton had.
In 2016, Wisconsin polls showed that 20% of voters disliked both Trump and Clinton. Of those dissatisfied voters, exit polls showed 60% backed Trump, 20% backed Clinton and 20% voted third party. This year, the number of voters who dislike both candidates is just 8%. Fewer dissatisfied voters paired with the high-stakes nature of the race has meant far less support for third-party candidates, removing another factor that led to late swings in the race four years ago.
Yet another reason the pollsters say their final surveys are likely to be more accurate: early voting. As many as 50% to 60% of voters could bank their votes by Election Day.
Candidate Trump Is Now President Trump
Also different this time: Trump isn’t just known as a bombastic TV-reality-show-star-turned-politician who might be worth a roll of the electoral dice. Now, he is an incumbent who has been impeached by Congress and has had to govern amid a pandemic and subsequent economic recession. People have strong views about Trump making this election a referendum on his presidency meaning fewer undecided voters in that environment.
Trump has been incredibly stable with his approval rating hovering around 40% for much of his tenure. That makes it unlikely voters will change their minds about Trump in the eleventh hour. In fact, looking at job approval in the Gallup poll going back to Franklin Roosevelt, no president is anywhere close — ever — to how small the variation has been in Trump’s approval rating over the four years.
Voter Education Level
The biggest miss among many pollsters four years ago was not accounting for the educational makeup of the electorate. That turned out to be a critical factor as Trump’s support skewed heavily toward white, non-college educated voters.
Typically, polls “weight” their results to give proper representation to a group that might have been under-sampled in a survey, compared to census data for that area. The practice is done by race, age, sex and other factors, but many state-level polls four years ago did not weight education.
For decades, less educated people are harder to get on the phone, and they’re harder to get to interview for a poll. As recently as twenty years ago, if a pollster had too many highly educated people in their poll, it didn’t shift their vote estimate much. It has in recent elections made it crucial to weight.
Franklin’s 2016 poll that did weight voters by education in was still off by 6 points; however, it probably would have been off by about 9 points if it had not.
Michigan and Wisconsin Turnout
While the fundamentals of the 2020 race have been far more stable than 2016, there is one potential wild card — turnout. Records already have been set for the number of early votes cast and some projections suggest turnout could hit the highest rate in more than a century. If record turnout leads to a particular demographic or voting bloc turning out in higher-than-expected numbers, it could affect the accuracy of polls.
Both the Marquette poll and the University of Wisconsin’s battleground state poll have placed Biden’s lead in Wisconsin at about 5 points. The battleground poll has had that lead at about 6 points in Michigan.
Michigan and Wisconsin: Different Methodologies, Similar Results
Franklin and Burden use different methodologies. Marquette conducts random live telephone interviews with likely voters while the University of Wisconsin partners with YouGov to identify a group of 800 likely voters in each state and then surveys the same group of voters online periodically throughout the election cycle.
“One thing that has been reassuring is we’ve been using two different types of surveys but are producing very similar estimates of the breakdown of Biden and Trump,” Burden said of the two polls. “It’s comforting to see them be pretty similar.”
Other polls have shown a larger lead for Biden in recent days in both Wisconsin and Michigan, with the margin growing since the president’s confrontational first debate and his hospitalization with the coronavirus.
A recent New York Times/Siena poll put Biden’s lead in Wisconsin at 10 points while a new Fox News survey has Trump down 12 points in Michigan. Franklin said he didn’t see as large of a bump in his polling following the debate, which also partially coincided with Trump’s initial time in the hospital.
“Every election there is some new challenge for polling that’s not really anticipated or where there isn’t a solution in advance,” Burden said. “The likely high turnout rate and the different patterns of turnout are the biggest challenges this year. We just don’t know.”
Records already have been set for the number of early votes cast and some projections suggest turnout could hit the highest rate in more than a century. If record turnout leads to a particular demographic or voting bloc turning out in higher-than-expected numbers, it could affect the accuracy of polls.
Different Kinds of News Cycles
Both noted how major news stories gave Clinton temporary advantages in 2016 polls that quickly disappeared. Burden pointed to Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape scandal, in which he was recorded bragging about groping women, as an example of a polling sugar high that wore off.
Whether that’s the case with Trump’s debate performance and COVID-19 diagnosis remains to be seen, the two pollsters agreed. Both will release their final surveys next week.
“I think it’s impossible to look at my polling and everyone else’s polling in Wisconsin and not come to the conclusion that Biden has a reasonably solid lead here. We can debate how big it is, but there are no recent polls that have Trump ahead,” Franklin said. “Of course, that’s where the alarms go off because that was true in 2016, and that’s where legitimate caution comes in — but the fact remains we have a lot of reasons to feel more confident in the accuracy this time.”
New Voters In Michigan and Wisconsin
New voter registrations also could affect turnout. Overall registration numbers have been down in many areas as fewer registration drives have been conducted amid the pandemic. In some states where voters are registered by party, including Pennsylvania and Florida, data has shown Republicans narrowing the gap in registrations with Democrats, largely because the GOP continued knocking on doors and holding event throughout the summer.
In Michigan and Wisconsin, voters do not register by party so it’s harder to get a feel for whether one side has an advantage, the pollsters and party leaders all agreed. Still, Hitt, the GOP chair in Wisconsin, said his party has put a greater emphasis on it this time, and some analyses have shown voter registrations dropping off at a slower rate in counties won by Trump four years ago.
Complicating matters, however, is the fact that Michigan and Wisconsin both have same-day voter registration, a tool Democrats most frequently push.
“It’s going to come down to how you turn out your voters, and that’s where I think we have an advantage. The Democrats don’t have a ground game. They’re not knocking on doors,” Hitt said. “They’re up in the cloud, and we’re down in the ground turning people out.”
Part of how Burden has tried to gauge potential turnout in his battleground polling has been to ask respondents whether they have been contacted by a campaign. In Michigan, he said, voters were more likely to hear from Democrats while Wisconsinites were more likely to hear from the Trump campaign.
In Wisconsin, Democrats have refrained from knocking on doors because of high COVID-19 cases, but they have dropped off campaign flyers in some areas, local officials said. In Michigan, Democrats did start canvassing door-to-door a few weeks ago, but have pulled back from some areas as COVID-19 cases have started to surge again, said the state’s Democratic Party chairwoman Lavora Barnes.
That’s what has Tracy Thompson worried about the polls. She chairs the Rock County Democratic Party in Wisconsin, where Trump had a large rally last weekend in Janesville and said she’s not convinced Biden has a big lead like some recent surveys have suggested.
“I’ve driven around the state recently and there are pockets where you just see Trump signs everywhere — big ones, multiple ones — and if I was to go off those, I would say Biden has no chance,” said Thompson, whose historically Democratic county Clinton won by 10 points in 2016. “Trump has been focused on Wisconsin for a long time, he’s visiting here and I’m getting at least three or four text messages a week from his campaign or allies urging me to vote for him, and I’ve never seen that before. They’re intense.”
Michigan And Wisconsin 2020
In 2016, it seems sleight errors in polling occurred because people were genuinely conflicted about Trump, and that was especially true among Republican and Republican-leaning voters. They really loathed Hillary Clinton and couldn’t imagine voting for her, which left them with a third-party candidate or sitting out the race. In the end, a lot of them came back and voted for Trump.
It seems most of the blame for 2016 in both states can be put on the high number of undecided voters moving late to Trump — a dynamic that is unlikely this time because it’s a smaller pool of voters.