Aidan Turek ’20
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to claim that the 2020 campaign began as soon as Trump collected enough electoral votes to win in 2016; the collective weight of our 45th President’s actions in office have boosted the importance of the upcoming election—it matters a lot to a lot of people, and news reports’20 about 2020 are being eaten up left and right. The field is still overflowing with candidates, a welcome change from the last election cycle’s surprising, even suspicious lack of challengers to Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House. Consider the 2015 Democratic debates: Clinton, the clear frontrunner, against the popular insurgent Sanders, and the forgettable Senators Webb and Chafee, and Governor O’Malley. ‘Forgettable’ is not inaccurate if one considers polling at the first debate in October, 2015, which on aggregate put Clinton clearly ahead at 43%, Sanders at just 25%, whereas Webb, Chafee, and O’Malley each scored below a percent. The following debates polled much the same as the first, with a clear majority for Clinton with Sanders behind, never able to go above a third. These debate polls were fairly off the mark when it came to the primaries, however, with Clinton only narrowly winning Iowa before losing by a large margin in New Hampshire, carrying the primary election by a relatively small margin, and having lost in 23 states. This result came amid a series of scandals involving the DNC Hack, the unwelcome influence of Democratic superdelegates, and the imbalance of SuperPAC money between Sanders and Clinton, all of which suggest serious media overrepresentation of mainstream, centrist politicians in the Democratic party, despite popular grassroots rebellion. And this is happening all over again.
Most news syndicates, such as the New York Times and CNN, report on Biden’s polling advantage, with the Times putting him at a confident 28%, well ahead of Warren at 17%, and Sanders at 15%. CNN’s polling shows Biden’s lead is only growing from an initial 22% while all other candidates stagnate or collapse, claiming that Biden more than regained the ground lost to Kamala Harris after her well-aimed attack on the former Vice President. These seemingly conclusive results stand in stark contrast to the Monmouth University poll released at the close of August, which showed a three way tie between Biden, Sanders, and Warren—indeed, it is the only major poll not to show Biden in the lead, marking it as a clear outlier. The Monmouth poll’s sample is considerably smaller than other polls, earning it some amount of criticism, and yet the problem is, in my mind, not so much one of sample size as sample bias—polling over-represents, and media coverage merely confirms, a centrist bias.
While most media coverage lists in small print that these polls are preliminary, there is a clear suggestion that they can be trusted—lest these polls would not be publicized at all. These caveats were progressively dropped in 2016, however: the media tended to inflate Clinton’s support—which, it can be argued, led to widespread surprise at her loss—while downplaying the outside bet of Sanders. The clear disparity between debate polling, and the smaller margin between general polling and election results, implies an inborn bias towards conventionalism and centrism, perfectly embodied in the persons of Clinton and Biden. The regular average that put Clinton ten points ahead Sanders inspired a dogged belief in her victory, which played into ridiculously confident polls showing Clinton’s lead over Trump: the New York Times, which now shows Biden twice as popular as his nearest competitor, Elizabeth Warren, predicted an 85% chance of Clinton’s victory in 2016.
For Democrats to make the same prejudiced mistakes again, as it seems is happening, may well doom Democrats to another electoral loss. Exuberant self-confidence on the part of the media in centrist candidates, be they Clinton or Biden or anyone else, plays its part in damning Democratic prospects—the media voting before the people is to put the cart before the horse. All this instructs us in several points. First, major liberal media outfits should refrain from elaborate prognostications based on invariably unpredictable polls. It is perhaps wiser to use polls for the names, not the numbers, given that, as with 2016, polling is itself not always valid, and even when it is—in showing Clinton ahead of Sanders, for instance—that fact should never be taken and blown out of proportion, as is occurring in no insignificant amount of reporting. There’s a discordant tone in publicizing polls while also throwing out caveats to the effect that ‘it’s too early to tell’—you can’t have your cake and eat it too.