Too many are misreading the 2024 polls. Here’s a better way.

Too many are misreading the 2024 polls. Here’s a better way.
Too many are misreading the 2024 polls. Here’s a better way.

One of the common reactions to recent polls from NBC News and the New York Times/Siena College was that they represented bad news for President Joe Biden, because they showed him narrowly trailing former President Donald Trump in hypothetical matchups.

Meanwhile, the reaction to other recent national polls from last week — like The Economist/YouGov and Morning Consult — was that they were better news for the president, because they had him ahead of Trump by a point or two.

Both reactions were off the mark.

All of these different polls — and many more — are telling pretty much the same story: Biden and Trump are locked in a competitive contest nearly a year before the 2024 general election.

In terms of why the contest is competitive, the polls show Biden underperforming among key parts of the Democratic base, as well as underperforming from his nearly 5-point popular vote victory over Trump in 2020.

But they don’t show or predict who will win a year from now. Or even tell us who the presidential nominees will ultimately be. Or which third-party candidates will gain ballot access and scramble up those nice, neat Biden-Trump head to head numbers. Or how the Electoral College, which ultimately decides the presidency, will shake out.

After all, we still have 11 months to go until Election Day 2024.

There’s a better way to read the polls

Given polls’ margins of error, historically low response rates when reaching voters, different likely voter models and, yes, past polling misses, it’s become a fool’s errand to expect precision from political polls.

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Is Biden really down a couple of points? Or is he ahead by 1-2 points? According to this longtime polling observer, that’s impossible to answer.

Still, polls remain incredibly useful and important for determining if a political contest is close or not, whether a particular politician or policy idea is popular with the electorate, and what the trend might be — in the overall electorate and among key groups.

Our national NBC News poll showed a hypothetical Biden-Trump race going from Biden +4 in June, to dead-even in September, and Trump +2 in November. While that movement is within each poll’s margin of error, the trend is clear.

Similarly, the recent Economist/YouGov poll that found Biden ahead of Trump by just 2 points showed the president with a larger lead back in September. Other polls have shown a similar pattern.

That said, the only conclusive takeaway from all of the recent polling is that a hypothetical Biden vs. Trump race remains super-close.

Keep the Electoral College in mind

Here’s a final point to consider when looking at the national polls: The presidency is decided state by state — with the winner needing at least 270 electoral votes under the Electoral College system.

In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2 points, but Trump got more than 300 electoral votes after winning the crucial battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In 2020, Biden won the popular vote by 4.5 points, and the Democrat got almost the same 300-plus electoral votes Trump did four years earlier.

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Bottom line: The last two presidential contests showed an obvious pro-GOP tilt in the Electoral College, where the national popular vote didn’t completely align with the outcome in the key battleground states.

Does that GOP advantage still exist heading into 2024? Or has it diminished?

Those are questions worth keeping in mind when reading the national polls, because it’s possible that Biden might need to win the popular vote by 5 points — or more — to win the Electoral College in 2024.

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