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Democrats see polls as overestimating Trump’s strength

Former President Trump led President Biden in a recent national New York Times/Siena College poll by 5 percentage points, prompting a campaign spokesperson for the Democrat to argue polling “consistently overestimates Donald Trump while underestimating Joe Biden.”

The remark is emblematic of a deeper skepticism of Trump’s strength in certain Democratic circles.

Biden allies point to primary results this cycle that show Trump underperforming his polling numbers and failing to capture moderate voters, as well as nonpresidential cycles under Biden where Democrats outperformed projections.

“We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But I think everyone in this town … is overestimating their strengths and underestimating ours,” said Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg.

Some Democrats were quick to dismiss The New York Times poll in particular.

Strategists were puzzled at the poll’s finding that women were equally split between Trump and Biden at 46 percent each, given exit polls in 2020 found Biden won women by 15 percentage points.

Democrats also questioned the poll’s findings that Trump was leading Biden by 6 points among Latino voters because Biden won that group by 33 percentage points in 2020, according to exit polls. Multiple Democratic strategists and pollsters noted 97 percent of interviews with Latinos surveyed for the poll were conducted in English.

Even Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who ended his long-shot primary bid against Biden on Wednesday, was skeptical of the poll’s findings.

“When the NYT/Sienna poll shows me at 12%, you better believe it is flawed,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Only 5% even know who I am.”

The Biden campaign’s belief that Trump is overestimated by polls is largely driven by the fact that voter behavior has not matched projections, including during this year’s primary elections.

Even as Trump has coasted toward the GOP nomination, winning all but two primary contests by huge margins, he has fallen short of what polls projected and has struggled with the voters who will likely play an outsized role in November.

Decision Desk HQ polling averages showed Trump projected to win the Michigan primary by 49 percentage points, and he ultimately defeated Nikki Haley by 42 percentage points. In South Carolina, he was projected to win by 29 points and ultimately carried the state by 20 points over Haley. In New Hampshire, Trump was projected to win by 14 points, according to Decision Desk, and won the primary by 11 points.

At the same time, Trump has hit his numbers in some races, including in Virginia — where polling averages showed him ahead by 25 percent, and he won by 27 percent.

Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report wrote Trump is entering the general election campaign “in strongest shape ever.”

Election Day is still roughly eight months away, but polling has shown Trump leading Biden in a likely rematch of the 2020 race.

The Decision Desk HQ average of national polls shows Trump ahead of Biden by roughly 2 percentage points, a potential warning sign for Democrats given Trump lost the popular vote even when he won the Electoral College vote in 2016.

The swing state data isn’t much better for Biden, according to Decision Desk HQ data.

Trump leads Biden in Georgia by an average of 7 percentage points, in Arizona by 5 percentage points, in Pennsylvania by an average of 4 percentage points and in Michigan and Wisconsin by an average of 3 percentage points.

Biden won each of those states in 2020, and with particularly narrow margins in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia.

“No, President Biden, the polls are accurate. Americans just don’t like you for destroying our economy and our borders,” said Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign adviser.

There are signs Biden may be underestimated, though. While thousands of Democratic primary voters cast ballots for “uncommitted” in protest of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, pollsters said many of those voters are likely to rally to the president’s side once the general election arrives.

“It is clear that there is some protest vote amongst regular Democratic voters in the primaries, and since polls are a snapshot in time this is what they are capturing,” said Scott Tranter, director of data science for Decision Desk HQ. “But historical vote patterns tell us staunch partisans usually come home, and as such I expect Biden to get back many of those voters.”

Rosenberg, the Democratic strategist, argued perhaps the strongest evidence that the polls are wrong about Trump is the reality that Democrats continue to win elections, particularly in the aftermath of the 2022 Supreme Court decision ending Roe v. Wade.

Without Trump on the ballot in 2022, Democrats defied expectations of a “red wave” sweeping Republicans into power in Congress. Democrats added a seat to their Senate majority, while Republicans captured a four-seat majority in the House, a smaller margin than expected.

Polls in Washington’s Senate race between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and GOP candidate Tiffany Smiley showed a close race in the closing weeks, but Murray won by roughly 15 percentage points.

In 2023, Democrats retained control of the governor’s mansion in deep-red Kentucky and won a key Wisconsin Supreme Court race thanks in large part to abortion messaging.

Voters also voted to protect abortion rights in red states like Kansas and Ohio, and Democrats won special elections in the Pennsylvania state house and most recently in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, where Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), outperformed polls by roughly 4 percentage points.

“To me, the most significant electoral data out there is we keep winning elections,” Rosenberg said.

“It’s important to not rely on polls but to match it with what people are doing when they actually vote. When people go vote, Trump is underperforming public polling,” he added.

The flaw in that argument is Trump was not on the ballot in 2022.

And when Trump has been on the ballot, he’s tended to perform better than polls predict.

Polling in the 2016 presidential race missed significantly, leading to a surprise Trump victory even as he lost the popular vote.

A final RealClearPolitics average of polls in Michigan projected then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would carry the state by 3.6 percentage points. Trump won the state by 0.3 percent, or less than 11,000 votes.

The RealClearPolitics polling average had Clinton ahead of Trump by 6.5 percentage points in Wisconsin, where Trump won by 0.7 percent.

And in Pennsylvania, Clinton was projected to win by 2.1 percent, according to polling averages, and Trump carried the state by 0.7 percent.

Polling in the 2020 election was much closer to the final result, but even in some cases, Trump overperformed expectations on Election Day.

The final RealClearPolitics average in Georgia had Trump ahead in the state by 1 percentage point, but Biden won the state by 0.3 percent, or about 12,000 votes.

Elsewhere, though, Trump fared better than polling predicted, even in defeat.

The RealClearPolitics average had Trump down 6.7 percentage points in Wisconsin, a state he lost by 0.7 percent. In Michigan, polling averages showed Biden ahead by 4.2 percentage points before Election Day, and he won the state by 2.8 percent.

Trump, who has long quipped to supporters that he only likes polls if they show him ahead, is sure to tout surveys in the 2024 race as long as they are favorable to him. But both sides ultimately expect a close race in November, regardless of what polls show in March.

“National polling, eight months out, confirms what we know to be true: this will be a very close general election contest like all modern presidential elections are — but, we have a clear path to victory,” the Biden campaign wrote in Wednesday’s memo.

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