The New Divergence In The Polls

To some, it will appear Trump’s Convention Bounce has faded. Or that Biden is building on his lead. But, a slate of recent battleground state surveys have shown Biden’s lead in these states is growing (at least in the polls) while his national lead has stagnated. Perhaps more importantly, Trump’s approval rating has climbed to a high not seen when he started his first term. So, what gives.

Obviously, these data points are somewhat contradictory. How can Biden’s lead in battleground states be growing even as his lead in national polls stagnates and Trump seems to be getting more popular? The obvious answer is it cannot. Something has to give or at least something has to be off.

The argument battleground polls are not moving is a sign Trump’s argument against Biden is falling flat. Could be true. But, if that were the case, signs of slippage would be being seen at the national level as well. Especially considering many battleground states are more right leaning than the nation as a whole.

A similar narrative of how opinions about the President are locked in has also taken hold. So, how exactly then, would Trump’s approval be rising? Even the generic ballot seems to be tightening at a time when all signs point to Biden sweeping every traditional swing state and then some (Arizona).

It should be noted no recent sitting President has won reelection without an average above 45 percent. For example, Obama averaged 47 percent on the eve of November, Bush averaged 49 (helped by a swell of support after 9/11) and Clinton was around 55. Trump has averaged around 40 percent and never been higher than 46. Yet, for all that, Biden has failed to run away with the contest. Polling has consistently shown him leading by varying margins in battleground state after battleground state – the same as 2016.

It is entirely possible as we get closer to the election Trump is getting more popular. There is a precedent for this as the same thing happened with Obama and Bush. The problem for the media and polling picking up on this is they are usually lagging indicators. For example, it is well noted how polling missed the swing of undecided voters to Trump in 2016 and missing the swing of voters to GOP candidates in Iowa, Florida and Ohio.

Or, maybe we are seeing for the first time something significantly new under Trump. All anecdotal evidence and analysis aside, Trump really has not defeated the political laws of gravity. His party was crushed in the midterms and in 2019, he saw his preferred candidates in both Louisiana and Kentucky lose. It has not looked like 2020 is any different.

But, what if for the first time in modern elections we are seeing a decoupling of approval ratings from voting. Keep in mind, we have never seen such a cultural divergence occurring in this country in such a way it is even overriding partisan allegiances. For example, look at how suddenly formerly Republican suburbs have shifted while just as quickly former union dominant, blue-collar towns and cities have shifted red.

If this is the new normal of politics than it will have not begun under Trump but only accelerated. Americans wishing for a return to easier times will likely be sorely disappointed when/if Trump loses reelection the divide does not disappear.

Be that as it may, if approval ratings are decoupling from Presidential support it does mean yet another measure of accurately assessing the electorate has disappeared. It also has implications for major policy decisions in terms of legislators and policymakers being able to accurately assess what the public wants.

What we can say is with less than 50 days before the election it is likely the race is closer than the polling numbers indicate. Anecdotally, local news stories and polls on specific demographics point to Trump running stronger among groups key in battleground states while statewide polls tend to under-count these voters and over-sample others. However, the fact rising approval ratings for the President is not correlating with stronger polling number is disconcerting.


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