How worried should the Democrats be about the polls?

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A year out from the next US presidential election, there are clouds on the horizon for Joe Biden and the Democrats. Two weeks ago, a survey by The New York Times put Donald Trump ahead of Biden in five out of six key battleground states. Days later, another swing-state poll found Trump leading in six out of seven races. And this week a full state-by-state forecast by Stack Data Strategy had Trump beating Biden in the electoral college despite narrowly losing the popular vote.

The headline results are eye-catching, but this early in the race their predictive value is virtually zero. Nonetheless, to quote G Elliott Morris, who took over from Nate Silver this year at US political data website 538, while polls carried out today tell us next to nothing about next November, they do tell us about public opinion today — and what they say is striking.

A consistent finding is that the Democrats are going backwards — in some cases sharply — with young and non-white voters, the very “coalition of the ascendant” that propelled Barack Obama to power in 2008 and was seen as heralding sustained Democratic domination.

The erosion in support for Biden among black voters may sound surprising, but it shouldn’t. Black voters, like any demographic, are not a monolith. Almost a third of African Americans who voted in 2020 describe themselves as conservative, and a large majority of these backed Trump in 2020.

Between 2012 and 2020, the Democratic share of the black vote fell from 97 to 91 per cent, according to the gold-standard data on demographic voting patterns from Catalist. And this is not just the unwinding of the Obama effect — the decline between 2016 and 2020 was as large as that from 2012 to 2016. Polls put Biden’s share of the black vote at just 80 per cent today, a record low, dipping to 70 per cent among young black men.

But while the continued slipping with African Americans should not surprise us, much more unexpected is the loss of support among the young. In 2020, 60 per cent of under-35s voted Democrat, but several recent polls have this cohort split 50/50.

For Trump to win almost half of the millennial vote would be little short of stunning. A marked age gap opened up with Obama’s victory and has shown no sign of closing until now. The divide between a progressive youth and a conservative older generation has become a hallmark of politics across much of the west. What could explain such a shift?

Some point to millennials’ heightened sensitivity to economic headwinds. Others see a New York Times poll showing increased concern about Biden’s mental sharpness among young adults and worry that a generation that lives on social media has been bombarded with countless memes and clips of Biden gaffes.

But before jumping to conclusions, it’s worth asking whether the decline in youth support is all it seems.

If we split recent polls by survey methodology, we see a stark difference. Online surveys show the familiar age gradient. Perhaps a slight dip in youth support for Biden, but he still wins 60 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds. Telephone polls, by contrast, show an almost even Trump/Biden split among under-30s, and young voters backing Trump more heavily than over-65s. This would be remarkable if true.

One possibility is that the types of people — especially young people — who answer a phone call from an unknown number in 2023 are not representative of their wider demographic. Another is that people respond in a systematically different way to phone and online interviews. As Morris told me, with a telephone poll you’re getting someone’s true voting intention plus a layer of performance for the interviewer.

The difference between polling methodologies for phone and online and the unusual shape of the age curve in telephone polls suggest that the magnitude of Democrats’ problem with young voters is probably overstated. But taken together with the continuing decline in support among people of colour, it does point to flagging enthusiasm among their base.

With a year to go, everything could change. Trump’s return to the limelight may remind some of the risks. But apathy and disillusionment among their most reliable segments of the electorate should serve as a warning to Democrats that demographics are not destiny. Without making a clear pitch to these groups, traditionally blue blocs may start to crumble., @jburnmurdoch

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