The next year, politically speaking, will be a hellscape. That’s not to say politics has not been a hellscape since Nov. 8, 2016, or, really, for my money, since it became the medium that inspired the Capitol Steps to attempt humor, but this election cycle in particular shows no signs of being anything but punishingly, exhaustively awful.
Perhaps the sole useful development from the 2016 election is that no voter is complacent. We all watched as the New York Times’ tracker betrayed us on election night, as that godforsaken arrow, firmly ensconced in Clinton’s half when the voting booths closed, slowly and steadily veered to the right until the conclusion was unavoidable. Polls that once brought relief should now come appended with a trigger warning; they are a black box, a Rorschach test that always leaves room for the worst-case scenario to crystallize into reality.
This is a paradox of the information age: We crave validation through data, but we simultaneously know far too well the shortcomings of these numbers. When bad polls appear, even a year before election day, we panic; when good polls appear, we fret about the sampling method and the margin of error. What I want, and I assume most Democrats want, is a panacea that rigorous statistical analysis simply cannot provide.
In this grueling march to November 2020, the only solace I’ve found is in a negation of certainty. It’s trite to say that the past three years have grossly dilated our sense of time, but it’s nevertheless refreshing to remember that there have been prior presidential elections. And without fail in those election cycles, some 12 months out from decision day, the predictive power of the polls has been utter dogshit.
The Washington Post deserves much blame for springboarding Chris Cillizza’s career and continuing to provide George Will a platform, but I must give credit where it’s due: They’re managing to keep me sane with their Who Led? project. The subtitle—“a reminder of how quickly presidential races can change”—understates the effort: It studies prior elections and each day tweets, without commentary, the primary polling averages for that day in the most recent election cycle.
It’s a simple but hilarious service, keyed on its inversion of the nature of polls. By looking backwards, and invoking the certainty of past election results, these historical polls become a source of dramatic irony. We, the audience for these tweets, certainly know that such outlandish scenarios didn’t come to pass, but lo, how silly we were! At this time during the 2008 primary cycle, Hillary Clinton was up more than 22 points in her first run for president; in the Republican primary, Rudy Giuliani had an ample double-digit lead.
Surely, we thought, one of these two dignified New York politicians would become our forty-fourth president. But, we said, briefly hedging, if either managed to pooch the primary, it would go down as their single greatest political failure, the sort of unmitigated disaster that would undoubtedly become their defining legacy.
In actuality, Clinton would limp to third in the Iowa caucus before falling to Barack Obama in the overall race; on the Republican side, Giuliani would exit in late January, having claimed a total of zero (0) delegates.
The polls from the other election cycles are more accurate, in that they at least get the names of the eventual nominees right. But their confidence levels are wholly off-base. Clinton had a 23-point lead according to polls at this point in the 2016 cycle; her eventual margin of victory in the primary was half that. Donald Trump, then polling with a less than 3-point lead, would romp to a nearly twenty-point win on the Republican side; similarly, 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney had a slim one-point lead but would trounce Rick Santorum and co. by more than thirty percentage points.
For someone like me—who fears nothing more than Joe Biden winning the nomination, simultaneously losing his brain and his dentures on the debate stage with Trump, and then earning the nickname “Toothless Joe” en route to an electoral college massacre—these polls are more than reassuring. They’re affirmations that at this point in election cycles, collective knowledge extends little beyond a gut feeling. While I do believe polls have some value, at some point, they don’t in November 2019. The current existence of Biden’s five-point national lead, seemingly steady despite his perpetual lack of neural activity, suggests nothing insurmountable.
Moreover, many on the left have been panicking about polls for months, as we’ve seen Bernie Sanders’ support flag, Liz Warren’s plateau, and potential voters increasingly flock to Pete Buttigieg, the Young Sheldon of South Bend. It is crucial to note how wasteful this is: A year out from election day 2012, the best evidence available suggested that Herman Cain would be the Republican nominee, whose lasting contributions to the political scene were sexual harassment and an acting vehicle for Mike Tyson. Around the same time in the subsequent cycle, we expected Ben Carson to eventually take the stage in Cleveland to accept the nomination. Of the 4,755 total delegates available in the two elections, Cain and Carson would combine to notch seven.
Yes, eventually, these error margins will erode. The judgment days of Iowa and New Hampshire and Super Tuesday will arrive, and with them the chance for dramatic variance will evaporate.
But to worry about polls at this stage, to believe in these forecasts with scant predictive power, is equal parts foolish and sadistic. There’s no shortage of other problems to prioritize, rather than worrying about the preferences of 350 likely voters in Des Moines who are only accessible via landlines. We have a corrupt president attacking civil liberties at every turn, a grossly insufficient health care system; we face a fast-approaching climate crisis and a ceaseless rising tide of inequality. We should be miserable, because that’s the current state of the world; we needn’t stockpile further misery because of bad polls. Actual problems beckon, which demand our focus much more than ephemeral estimates of what likely won’t happen in twelve months. Or, to quote Herman Cain’s indelible campaign slogan: Let’s Get Real.