If we’ve learned anything from the presidential election of 2016, it is that polls are unreliable and pundits are imperfect prognosticators.
When it comes to presidential elections, to borrow a quote from the great screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.”
Nothing definitive anyway.
“Donald Trump is not going to win Michigan,” was the 100% certain headline on a Nov. 7, 2016, New York magazine column by Jonathan Chait. “And,” Chait added on Twitter, “I am frankly offended that people even think that this is a possibility.”
A day later, Trump won a stunning upset in Michigan. Yes, he took the state by the narrowest margin of victory it had ever seen in a presidential election. But he won.
“Relax, Donald Trump can’t win,” was the patronizing headline on a June 2016 essay by Jon Wiener in the Nation. “Even before you get to his campaign’s incompetence and lackluster fundraising, the numbers just aren’t on his side.”
Overconfident Democrats relaxed a little too much.
By the time they understood their Blue Wall was as flimsy as Trump’s promise to bring back the American coal industry, it was too late.
Maybe some numbers weren’t on Trump’s side — the popular vote, for example. But the only numbers that mattered — the Electoral College numbers — were most definitely on his side.
So here we are, almost three years into his disastrous, 20-lies-a-day administration, with a much-deserved impeachment looming alongside the 2020 presidential campaign.
Trump is a deeply unpopular incumbent who nevertheless manages to inspire fanatical support in his extremely loyal base, and we don’t yet know who will face him next year. The Democratic primary may be well underway, but the presidential race has yet to really begin.
And yet, some folks in the opining business can tell you with great certainty why, for instance, the 2020 race is the Democrats’ to lose (Bill Maher). Others will aver that Trump has it all but sewn up already, or will win in a landslide (Moody’s).
They will tell you that Trump-weary swing voters are looking for moderate Democrats like Joe Biden who can play nice with Republicans and bring a steady hand back to American foreign policy.
They may tell you why nominating Elizabeth Warren would portend disaster for the Democrats. Or why nominating her is the only way to flush Trump from the White House and back to the swamp where he belongs. (Well, Florida, anyway.)
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They will tell you the electorate wants progressive Democrats with game-changing ideas like “Medicare for all.” They will tell you that Medicare for all is too radical for Americans.
Warren’s fatal flaw, they say, is that she has not said how she will pay for Medicare for all. And then, when she finally put out her plan, they say it’s not realistic.
They will tell you that Hillary Clinton lost because she was too cozy with Wall Street. They will tell you that Warren can’t win because Wall Street hates her.
They will tell you that, in general, the American people are happy with their health insurance, whereas in reality, most people say they are happy with their health care, not with their insurance companies. Bernie Sanders is going hoarse pointing out this discrepancy.
It’s axiomatic that the only polls that really matter are the polls conducted in swing states. That’s because most states are firmly blue or red.
But, as we have seen in the recent past, states swing.
Barack Obama won Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida in 2012. Four years later, all those states went for Trump.
The New York Times recently published a swing state poll that found Trump’s chances in 2020 to be very strong. In hypothetical matchups against Trump, former Vice President Biden fared the best, followed by Sen. Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Warren of Massachusetts.
The poll also raised what the New York Times described as the “fraught questions of ‘likability’” that could plague Warren, the only woman among the top contenders.
The story quoted a 26-year-old Florida woman who said she voted for Trump in 2016 but won’t vote for him in 2020. She won’t vote for Warren though, because female presidential candidates are, in her words, “super unlikable.” She added: “There’s just something about her (Warren) that I just don’t like.”
I’ve called out this rank, if internalized, sexist formulation in previous columns. “There’s just something about her I don’t like” represents the double standard that plagues all female candidates. And, frankly, that makes me despair for my daughters.
But the election is a year, and an impeachment inquiry, away.
A Democratic nominee will emerge at some point next year — hopefully sooner rather than later — and the real contest will be on. Today’s hypothetical matchups will be meaningless by then. Voters looking for reassurance in punditry and polls should remain skeptical of the barrage of conflicting information.
Anything could happen. I mean, come on, it already has.
Abcarian writes for The Los Angeles Times: @AbcarianLAT.