It’s early morning on November 9th, 2016, and the majority of analysts are at a loss to describe Donald Trump’s election victory. The experts were wrong we are told, and the so-called “Silent Majority” made its will known. In the days that follow, experts are putting out theories on ‘shy’ Trump voters, sabotage, and everything else in between. But just like the Brexit vote in the UK a year beforehand, it’s the polling companies that come in for most criticism. How could they be so wrong again?
But there is an argument that says the polls were not “off” in 2016, at least not in the conventional sense. Instead, there is the charge that the analysis of the poll went badly wrong and that the blame lies at the feet of the mainstream media. As ever in politics, it’s not that clear-cut. However, there are some lessons from 2016 and the aftermath that we can look at when predicting – and betting on the 2020 US Presidential election.
Pundits got analysis wrong
First, let’s look at what we mean by bad polling analysis in 2016. Most (good pollsters) claimed that Donald Trump had a fighting chance against Clinton. In fact, The New York Times claimed on election day that Trump had a 15% chance of victory. That looks small, but it’s something akin to correctly calling a ‘6’ when rolling dice. The problem came when pundits portrayed Clinton’s 85% chance of winning as a certain victory. It’s a flaw with polling analysis that still persists to this day.
The important thing to understand about Trump’s victory was that he won three crucial states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – by a combined margin of 77,744 votes, which is a tiny margin when you consider over 138 million people cast votes. Clinton was deemed to be ahead in the polls in those states, but often within the polling margin of error (usually around 3-4 percentage points). Even if the polling consistently showed Clinton to be up by a few points, it could be misleading if it is within the margin of error.
Biden is rightly the bookies’ favorite
So, as we hurtle towards the 2020 election, is there anything different? Yes, although analysts and bookmakers are shying away from calling anything a certainty. Joe Biden is the favorite, with odds of 7/10 (-142) quoted by 888sport, whereas Trump is quoted at 5/4 (+125). That suggests a tight race, akin to the odds you would see for a closely contested boxing fight. However, we’d argue that the sportsbooks are underselling Biden’s chances and overselling Trump’s.
Why do we say the sportsbooks are underestimating Biden? Well, the polling is very different than it was in 2016. Not only does Biden poll consistently better than Clinton against Trump; he also polls much further outside the margin of error. Those three states – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania – see Biden with a substantial lead enough to see him through comfortably even if the polls are biased towards Democrats by three or four points. He also holds reasonable leads in “bonus” states like Florida and North Carolina, i.e. those states he does not need to win for a path to victory.
Of course, we should provide a note of caution before anyone goes steaming in to back Biden with a bookmaker. At the time of writing, it’s just over 80 days until the election. A lot can happen between now and then. And, yes, even in these highly polarized times of entrenched views, Trump can get back into the lead. However, if you are refraining on betting because of what happened in 2016, you should be aware that Biden is in a much stronger position than Hillary Clinton.