It's gonna be a very long and exceptionally tedious road to November 2024
There are two strategies to stay sane: ignore the horse race for now, or pace yourself.
Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the beginning of the end of election season, the turn to the final stretch where the news cycle becomes subsumed by the campaign. Every detail of every poll is scrutinized, and every news event is dissected, based on whether it might swing a few thousand votes in Georgia, Wisconsin or Arizona. It’s also the point beyond which, if you’re a professional covering the campaign, it becomes hopeless to inject any nuance or uncertainty into the discussion. Most people just want the anxiety to be over and to hear exactly one thing — that their guy is going to win.
In line with the usual pattern, something about the mood surrounding the 2024 campaign has shifted over the past week. For instance, a series of seemingly low-stakes debates about polling became fervent arguments on The Platform Formerly Known As Twitter, from “CNN poll” becoming a trending topic to an engagement-farming account causing a ruckus by pointing out that a Republican polling firm was doing polling for Republican clients (the complaint is every bit as stupid as it sounds1).
To be fair, I’ve been through a few of these rodeos before. The election is only 58 days away. Come hell or high water, I’ll be spending some of my December sitting on a beach somewhere — well, unless there’s another runoff in Georgia.
Hold on a second. My phone is vibrating. I’ve just received word of an important detail that I may have neglected.
Apparently, it’s Labor Day, 2023. The election is 58 days — and one year — away.
It is way, way, way too early for any of this shit.
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Hey, if you want to focus on big-picture themes about Election 2024, I have no objection. How might the series of criminal indictments affect Donald Trump? What does the economic outlook portend for next year? How does voter concern about Joe Biden’s age impact his reelection chances? What happens if Republicans gain support among among Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters who didn’t go to college? These are worthwhile questions.
But it is much too soon to engage in what Other Nate (Cohn, of the New York Times) calls “crosstab diving”, i.e. scrutinizing the minutiae of polls. Most voters aren’t paying attention yet, and it will be nine months to a year before they do. Furthermore, polling this early historically has little to no predictive power. It’s not hard, for instance, to find polls from this point in 2015 showing Hillary Clinton with double-digit leads over Trump.
There are exactly four things you need to know about the horse race right now:
Joe Biden could win.
Donald Trump could win.
Someone other than Biden or Trump could win.
The odds of these scenarios do not shift very much from day to day.
I’d argue that 1 (Biden winning) is more likely than 2 (Trump winning) which, in turn, is more likely than 3 (someone else winning). But unless you’re making trades of some kind, there probably isn’t a lot to be gained from further precision than that right now.
If you’re a Democrat worried about Trump or another Republican becoming president — or a Republican worried about a Democrat winning the presidency for the fourth time in five tries — then I have some bad news for you: it’s entirely possible. Not just snowball’s-chance-in-hell possible, but robustly possible. Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
There’s not any wisdom to be divined from the cross-tabs of a poll. You’re just going to have to live with the uncertainty. And you’re going to have to live with it for some time.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a very important election. However, with potentially the first repeat matchup since 1956, it may not be a particularly interesting election. And the general election news cycle may start very early. If Trump does well in Iowa and New Hampshire — and there’s no snafu for Biden — they could become their party’s presumptive nominees as soon as February, making for lots of time for process stories and picayune debates about polling.
So pace yourself. Read about other news topics. Hang out with your friends and family. Go for a hike or watch NFL opening weekend. The polls will still be there when you get back.
The Wall Street Journal employs a polling partnership between a Republican and a Democratic polling firm — essentially a form of adversarial collaboration, a technique that often yields reliable results. The Twitter account “MuellerSheWrote” discovered that the Republican side of the collaboration, the firm Fabrizio Lee, has recently performed polling for Trump. Well, no shit it has — if you’re a Republican polling firm, there’s a good chance you’ll have done polling for the leading Republican candidate. The Democratic side of the collab, GBAO, has likewise done millions of dollars worth of polling for Democratic clients.