A recent national YouGov poll from last week found Joe Biden leading Donald Trump 49% – 40%. When asked who people expected to win the election, only 40% of respondents said Biden will win the election while 39% of voters believed Trump will win. Historically, one of the best predictors of which candidate wins the presidential election has been who voters believe will win the election. 2016 however was the first election since the Dewey-Truman race in 1948 where the expected winner lost. In 2016, many voters believed that Hillary Clinton was going to coast to victory. As a matter of the popular vote, the voters were correct in predicting that Clinton would win, even if they were wrong about the Electoral College. Voters in 2020 however have been much more uncertain about whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is favored to win this November, despite polls giving Biden a large lead.
A YouGov poll taken in early July 2016 (around the same time in the election cycle four years ago as now) found that 54% of voters thought Clinton would win while only 26% thought Trump would win. This same poll found that Clinton led Trump by 3 percentage points, 40% – 37%, in the head-to-head poll. Voters’ were incredibly confident about the expected outcome of the race, even if the head-to-head polling implied a closer race.
Even though Biden has a larger lead in the most recent head-to-head poll than Clinton did four years ago and more aggregate support (49% for Biden versus 40% for Clinton), Biden’s 1% net margin on the question of who voters believe will win the election is significantly smaller than Clinton’s 28% margin from four years ago. This could be because the 2016 election looms large on many voters’ minds. Democrats may be afraid of being burned again; 30% of self-reported Democrats said they either do not know who will win in 2020 or that Donald Trump will win. However, if this perception starts to shift, and more voters expect Biden to win, it could become a leading indicator that the race is leaning more toward Joe Biden.
It is too early to know if this trend of voters favoring Biden while being uncertain about the outcome this November will continue. Perhaps voters’ expectations are no longer as accurate a predictor of which candidate will win the electoral college as they once were. As the campaigns continue to play out and if Biden maintains his large lead both nationally and in battleground states, perhaps voters’ expectations will shift. Tracking voter perceptions of which candidate is expected to win will provide a great complementary view of the head-to-head polling.
Introduction to Polling
A Guide to the 2020 Election Season—our introductory to polling course is designed to teach you a framework to use so that you can confidently follow the polls through this election season and beyond.View Course