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Nate Cohn Finally Adds the Asterisk

Donald Trump is doing pretty well in polls right now. That is particularly true of swing-state polls, and is even truer of Sun Belt swing-state polls. And no poll has more consistently had good news for the former president than The New York Times/Siena. There have been at least two or three occasions where the latest from that partnership became national news, and dominated two or three or four news cycles.

The good news in being the face of "Trump is looking like he could win this thing" is that, if he wins, you get a reputation as a political soothsayer. The bad news in being the face of "Trump is looking like he could win this thing" is that, if he loses, you become the latest case study in "another election, another pollster screw-up."

We have already cautioned readers many times that you cannot put too much faith in polls at this point in the cycle, regardless of what year it is, because there's just too much that can change in 6 months. We have specifically warned that this cycle appears to be particularly tricky because both candidates are so well known, and both are so unpopular. We have also dug specifically into the NYT/Siena numbers, and noted that the cross-tabs have some things that are truly shocking, and very hard to swallow.

It seems to have occurred to the Times' polling guru, Nate Cohn, that he better cover his rear end. After all, he's not just the guy who writes up the NYT/Siena polls, he's also the guy who oversees the whole operation. And so, this weekend, Cohn published a piece that aggressively taps the brakes on the numbers he and his team have been producing. Under the headline "A Polling Risk for Trump," he writes:

The polls have shown Donald Trump with an edge for eight straight months, but there's a sign his advantage might not be quite as stable as it looks: His lead is built on gains among voters who aren't paying close attention to politics, who don't follow traditional news and who don't regularly vote.

Disengaged voters on the periphery of the electorate are driving the polling results—and the storyline—about the election.

President Biden has actually led the last three New York Times/Siena national polls among those who voted in the 2020 election, even as he has trailed among registered voters overall. And looking back over the last few years, almost all of Trump's gains came from these less engaged voters.

Cohn's piece includes a graph that really puts things into black and white (well, blue and red):

Among voters who did not vote
in 2020, Biden has picked up 2 points while Trump has picked up 14.

That gap is what is known to psephologists as "statistically significant."

So, what is going on here? Well, there are a number of ways one might explain this gap. One possibility is that Trump is going to turn out a lot of voters in 2024 that he did not turn out in 2020. A second is that there are a lot of people out there who have decided that voting doesn't matter, but that complaining to pollsters is a pretty good way to vent one's discontent. A third is that the wobbly Trump voters, who might or might not vote, are nonetheless certain as to their pick if they do get to the polls, while the wobbly Biden voters are still keeping their options open. As Cohn points out, the wobbly Biden voters appear to be more centrist than Democrats on the whole, more concerned about things like the economy and less concerned about things like abortion access.

This is not an exhaustive list, mind you, and it's entirely possible (indeed likely) that all three of these things are true, at least to some extent. In any case, we are now going to repeat something we've already written at least a dozen times: The election projections (including ours) will not begin to attain any semblance of accuracy until September or so, once people begin to figure out answers to these questions: (1) Am I actually going to vote? and (2) If so, which candidate am I actually going to vote for? Right now, there is so much uncertainty on those points that the presidential polling numbers have to be analyzed with care to extract any true meaning.

So can we learn anything from the current state of affairs? We think so. Wisconsin is D+1, Michigan is EVEN, Pennsylvania is R+3. These are all statistical ties. It's a coin flip in all of them. In contrast, Nevada is R+8, Arizona is D+2, Florida is R+9, Georgia is R+5, and North Carolina is R+5. This does suggest that the "northern route" will be easier than the "southern route" for Biden, although Kari Lake and the abortion initiative may save Biden in Arizona. We don't believe Zogby's poll of Maine (R+1) for a second. Maine is a blue state, except maybe ME-02.

Why are we getting this result? Our best guess is that Biden is indeed having trouble with Black and Latino voters, especially men. They admire Trump for being "tough" and may also buy into his complaint: "They" are coming after me, just like they always come after you. The southern states are far more diverse than the northern ones, so in the end, white folks may be the ones to save Biden. (Z)

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