For Democrats, There Is No Margin Big Enough To Sleep Well
Lightoller: “I’ve been at sea since I was a boy.... I’ve even been shipwrecked before. I know what the sea can do. But this is different.” Gracie: “Because we hit an iceberg?” Lightoller: “No, because we were so sure. Because even though it’s happened, it’s still unbelievable. I don’t think I’ll ever feel sure again, about anything.” -A Night to Remember, 1958
Joe Biden has been leading in national polls by roughly a ten-point margin for several weeks now and has healthy leads in most swing states. FiveThirtyEight gives him an 87 percent chance of winning the Electoral College, and this is one of the more conservative estimates out there. And yet the airwaves and timelines are filled with Democrats fearful they are about to lose. Why?
This is something I dig into in my new book Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020. Basically, Democrats are traumatized by 2016, and for two main reasons: the results upended many of their expectations and beliefs about American politics, and the costs of being wrong are far higher than any other time in modern history.
Just to clear up a common myth about 2016, no, the polls weren't especially wrong. It was actually an impressive year for national polling. Polling averages had her up by about 3 points by Election Day; she won the popular vote by 2 points. The reasons people obsess about the 2016 polling are threefold:
The polls substantially understated Trump's support in a few key states in the Upper Midwest, and that was enough to give him a win.
The popular vote diverged from the Electoral College results to a historically large degree.
Missing by one point isn't a big deal if you're expected to get 55 and you get 54. It is a big deal if you're expected to win and you lose. The polls weren't off by much, but they were off exactly where it counted.
That was enough. The Democratic Party activists to whom I spoke over the course of the book research expressed being completely disoriented by 2016 and desperate to avoid a repeat. "They are so traumatized by 2016, and they’re so terrified of revisiting that night and having it all happen again," said an Iowa activist of her Democratic friends. The 2016 election results caused them to question everything: every tool they had and every instinct they'd developed over decades in politics told them one thing was going to happen and something else did. It undermined their confidence and made them less likely to believe even the most favorable polling environment (such as the president trailing by a greater margin than any incumbent has lost by since the 1930s).
Second, the costs of being on the losing side are a lot higher today than they used to be. "Trump has raised the stakes," reported one activist in my interviews. That is, his campaigning and governing style, his appointments of judges, his family separation policy at the borders, his responses on the pandemic, and so many other things mean that losing has a much higher ideological cost than it used to from the perspective of Democrats.
In fairness, this is not simply a product of Trump. Thanks to negative partisanship, people view the other party as more alien and more dangerous than they used to, without necessarily liking their own party more. This is a trend that has been going on for decades and shows little sign of abating.
We can see this pattern in presidential approval; typically around 80 percent or so of people in the president's party approve of the job he's doing, but a decreasing share of out-party members do so. Forty-nine percent of Democrats, on average, approved of the job Republican President Dwight Eisenhower did in office, while the same percentage of Republicans approved of the job Democratic President John Kennedy did. Yet twenty-three percent of Democrats approved of George W. Bush’s work across his two terms. Just 14 percent of Republicans approved of Barack Obama, and just 8 percent of Democrats have approved of Donald Trump.
These trends are a large part of the reason Democrats ended up nominating Joe Biden for 2020. Fears about even large polling margins evaporating and about losing another costly election to Donald Trump compelled Democrats to focus on what they perceived as the most electable candidate. Far more so than in previous cycles, Democrats prioritized electability over policy beliefs; they were willing to pay a large price to avoid a repeat of 2016.
One additional reason for Democratic fears is entirely justified; while the popular vote usually tracks the Electoral College pretty closely, they recognize that the Electoral College is currently biased against them, and it has cost them the White House twice in the past five elections even when winning the popular vote. That bias is likely growing.
Suffice it to say that Democrats will pretty much never feel confident in a presidential polling lead again for the foreseeable future. And honestly, that's not terrible. It means that even in lopsided elections, there will be plenty of interest, attention, money, and campaign activity, all having the effect of informing voters and bringing them to the polls. This is healthy for democracy. It may not be all that healthy for Democrats' nerves.