Analysis: The 2020 Election Is Shaping Up To Be A Lot More Like 2018 Than 2016

This is the second piece in NDN's weekly Thursday polling round-up. You can find last week's piece here.

NDN's central belief surrounding the 2020 election is that the race currently resembles the Democrats' significant victory in the 2018 midterms far more than it does Trump's win in 2016. Looking at our three preferred polling aggregates* - Trump approval among likely/registered voters (from FiveThirtyEight), Biden-Trump head to head (from Real Clear Politics), and the Congressional generic ballot (from FiveThirtyEight) - we can see this divergence clearly. First, the polling data underlying the current race looks very similar to that on election day in November 2018. On November 6th, 2018, Trump had a net approval rate of -9.6 among likely/registered voters and the Congressional generic ballot favored Democrats by 8.7 percentage points. Similarly, Trump's net approval today is -10 and the Congressional generic favors Dems by 7.7 points.

By contrast, the data we see today looks markedly different from what we had available in November 2016. On November 8th, 2016, Clinton led Trump head-to-head by 3.2 percentage points and the Congressional generic ballot favored Democrats by just 1.2 points. Meanwhile, Biden today leads Trump head-to-head by 6.3 points and Democrats lead Republicans by 8.7 points in the generic ballot. As we can see, the 2020 approval and generic ballot numbers are only 0.4 points and 1 point different from those same numbers in 2018, whereas the 2020 head-to-head and generic ballot numbers are 3.1 and 6.5 points different (in the Democrats' favor) from those same numbers in 2016. While there is still plenty of time for the 2020 race to see significant changes, right now the Democrats are keeping their 2018 advantages while Trump is not keeping his 2016 ones.

Below you can find a detailed aggregate of the most important polling data (in our view) for understanding where the 2020 election currently stands. 

Links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

Finally, there are two other important data points that we believe point towards 2020 being a substantively different election than 2016: how voters who dislike both major candidates vote and how unified the Democratic party becomes behind its candidate. In both instances, it is clear that Biden has substantial upside compared to Clinton. First, on voters who have unfavorable opinions of both major candidates. According to data from CNN, voters who disliked both Trump and Clinton in 2016 supported Trump by a 17 point margin. Right now, however, voters who dislike both Trump and Biden are supporting Biden by 50-60 points. This matters because Trump's favorability is so consistently low (it has remained at around 40-44% for his entire presidency) that he has to win voters who have unfavorable views of him to win the election. He did this in 2016, but isn't doing it right now.

Second, on party unity behind the Democratic candidate. In 2016, Clinton ended her primary campaign in May 2016 with strong unfavorables among Sanders supporters according to YouGov data - she had a net -16 favorability rating among them and 37% of those voters had a very unfavorable view of her. By contrast, Biden ended his primary campaign in April 2018 with much stronger numbers among Sanders supporters - he had a net -1 favorability rating among them and 23% had a very unfavorable opinion of him. This is also important because a major problem for Clinton in 2016 was her difficulty in uniting the more progressive wings of the party around her, while Biden starts the general election in much better shape among Sanders' supporters than Clinton did.

* Note that we can only make comparisons between elections using aggregates that were used in both elections being compared. For example, the generic ballot was used in both 2016 and 2018 so we can use that to compare the elections, but head-to-head polling was not used in 2018 so we cannot use that metric to compare 2016 and 2018.