If there is one golden rule that political professionals of all stripes, parties and ideologies embrace, it is that the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. It actually is possible to put a precise time on the moment when any lingering doubts about the utility of this rule were swept away. It was 10:53 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. That’s when Donald J. Trump was awarded Florida’s 29 electoral votes and his path to the White House became clear and, as it turned out, unimpeded.
So no, the polls cannot tell you who will win the November election. And you don’t need public-opinion polls to know that the principal question in the 2020 election won’t be whether former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. deserves to be president, but whether Trump deserves a second term, and a second chance.
But if there is some value in examining polls in late June, it is to shine light on the issues on which the two men will stage their campaigns, and how the voters break on those issues. And in that regard, already there are strong, possibly immutable signals.
The area where the public’s assessment of two candidates’ skills diverges the most is in uniting the American people after this difficult year. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll shows Biden with a 25 percentage point advantage over the president, who has the endorsement of only a quarter of Americans in this vital category. In quiet times, this is an important measure. In times of tumult, it is an especially important indicator.
Here is a separate poll finding that illuminates what pollsters call “salience,” a fancy way of suggesting the public’s priorities: A startling 4 out of 5 Americans, according to that Journal/NBC News survey, feel that the country is spiraling out of control.
Let’s take a moment to clarify what that means and what it doesn’t mean. It is not an indicator of conservative backlash to the tumult of the times — even though “law and order” was, in the Richard M. Nixon campaign of 1968 and the Trump presidency more than a half-century later, a shorthand prescription for fighting the notion of a country out of control, which both figures in their public comments equated with urban protests and racial unrest.
But there are limits to political leaders’ ability to shape opinion and action, as presidents throughout history have discovered. “Our leaders cannot command us; they can only lead us,” Mary Kate Cary, a onetime George H.W. Bush speechwriter who teaches at the University of Virginia, said in a Zoom public class last week.
So despite all the “law-and-order” comparisons with 1968 — a true annus horribilis, with two assassinations and street protests in more than 100 cities — this is a different year with different circumstances and far different public sentiment.
Here, multiple poll findings are immensely instructive, and together they display with clarity the notion that Americans do not blame the upheaval in the streets on African Americans, whose grievances are at the center of protests that have displayed remarkable diversity and suggest broad consensus on the validity of those grievances.
A survey by the online research firm Civiqs, for example, found that a majority of voters support the Black Lives Matter movement. A Monmouth University poll found that 57% of those surveyed believed the anger that led to this spring’s protests was justified. Both those polls, and others, demonstrate how persuasive, not how divisive or destructive, the protests have been.
There are, to be sure, other issue areas on which the 2020 campaign will be fought.
Trump fares better than Biden on cutting unemployment, bringing people back to work and dealing with economic questions. Those are the themes on which he will base his campaign. They appeal to his 2016 base and address public fears in 2020.
Though political commentators and strategists devoutly and almost universally believe that economic conditions are a major and perhaps even the decisive factor in presidential elections, the connection remains a yeasty subject of debate among political scientists. Leo H. Kahane of Providence College, for example, argued in a 2009 study that Ronald Reagan’s communications skills (which were considerable) were more important than his economic record (which was mixed, though with sizable evidence of an economic recovery by Election Day) in explaining his 1984 landslide.
Now let’s examine the Biden issue portfolio. He outpolls Trump in voters’ views of his competence and effectiveness, in their assessment of his ability to handle the coronavirus, in their evaluation of his instincts on health care, and on his likelihood of handling issues important to blacks, Hispanics and women.
The two contenders are pretty much even on handling China, which Trump’s camp regards as a strength for his re-election campaign, and on representing change, which speaks to the complexity of this election.
Trump rode into power as an insurgent determined to change the way Washington works — to drain the “swamp” and to battle what he and his allies consider the “deep state.” Biden has no such instinct nor inclination. A creature of Washington, he has operated, even flourished, in the mud and muck of the swamp, and is the personification of the deep state.
Thus the election represents a clash of different conceptions of change. Trump’s view grows out of a revulsion toward compromise and comity, a rebellion against the customs of the capital, and a turn from international institutions and traditional alliances. The Biden view sees change in large measure as a return to old habits, with an emphasis on the compromise and comity Trump so reviles.
The Trump rhetorical challenge is easy to address. It means Twitter bombs and the language of strength.
The Biden rhetorical challenge is far more complicated. It requires more comfort than confrontation, the better to separate himself temperamentally from the president. But it cannot suggest a restoration of the old ways, because many of the voters he needs to attract believe those old ways mostly comforted the corporations whose interests he championed as a senator from Delaware, where many of them were chartered.
Bottom line: Biden has the advantage on the issue portfolio. But Trump has a far less complex campaign to run.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.