There is a general consensus, bolstered by the steadiness of President Trump’s approval numbers throughout his entire tenure in office, that the country is mostly locked in and entrenched, with few undecided voters. This might be true if we’re talking only about the red/blue divide, but it certainly hasn’t been true in the Democratic primaries.
The massive swing to Joe Biden after his victory in South Carolina and subsequent endorsements by Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke was stronger than even the most optimistic Biden partisan was willing to predict. In fact, the safest observation right now about the Democratic electorate is that they are uncertain about what they want and who they should support. On the fringes of the party, it’s hard to even be confident that they’re totally committed to voting against Trump or voting at all.
As for true independents, the Democratic Party establishment certainly believes that a lot can hinge on whether the nominee is Biden or Sanders. Particularly with respect to affluent suburbanites who have supported both Bush and Obama or both Romney and Clinton, there’s a belief that Biden will snatch them up while Sanders will drive them away. Likewise, among Sanders’ supporters, it’s an article of faith that the youth vote will not turn out for Biden and he’ll have trouble exciting the base.
I believe these are safer assumptions, on both sides, than the idea that the country is locked in an immutable partisan standoff. I truly believe that the November election is not only up for grabs but that the result could be decided by a late and possibly dramatic swing in either direction.
For this reason, I don’t put a lot of faith in polls. I probably wouldn’t anyway after witnessing Trump’s stunning and unpredicted victory in 2016, but it’s not the inherent unreliability of polls that informs me here, but rather the example of what we just witnessed with Biden prior to Super Tuesday.
Having said that, the Democrats look like they’re currently in a pretty good position. An example from today is provided by Public Policy Polling which just found the party leading in the Senate races in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and Maine. They also found both Biden and Sanders ahead in Maine by 10 points, and Biden leading in Arizona by one, while Sanders trails by one.
For context, Arizona has 11 Electoral College votes while Wisconsin only has 10, so picking up Arizona could more than compensate for a second loss in the Badger State. Meanwhile, if the Democrats really do carry those four Senate races and capture the presidency, they’ll have 50-50 control of the Senate even if they lose Sen. Doug Jones’s Alabama seat. This is because the sitting vice-president breaks ties in the Senate.
Of course, one thing that’s notable about these PPP polls is that there’s virtually no difference in how Biden and Sanders perform against Trump. One can conjecture in two directions on this. Either it makes no difference who the Democrats’ nominate and this election will be a pure referendum on Trump, or Biden and Sanders will assemble vastly different coalitions that are somehow almost exactly equivalent in how many votes they can produce.
I have trouble subscribing to either of those theories, however, and I suspect that my initial theory is more accurate. I think this election will be more volatile than people expect, and that it has the potential to break hard in one direction or the other, possibly at the last moment.