A new poll puts Joe Biden roughly even with President Donald Trump in two Southern swing states, suggesting the presidential race may be a competitive one come autumn.

CBS News polls of registered voters released Sunday show Biden just ahead of Trump in North Carolina, with 48 percent support to the president’s 44 percent, and a close race in Georgia, with the presumptive Democratic nominee at 46 percent to Trump’s 45 percent.

These leads may be even smaller than they appear, however — the North Carolina poll has a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points, while the Georgia poll has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. These margins mean Trump could be narrowly ahead in either, or both, states.

Trump won both states by relatively slim margins in 2016, but the candidates’ closeness suggests Biden may be, as some national polling suggests, reducing Trump’s advantage with white voters — and that a poor federal response to the coronavirus pandemic may play a role in voter sentiments.

Overall, CBS’s pollsters found Trump to be down 12 percentage points in Georgia, and 7 percentage points in North Carolina with white voters compared to his 2016 results.

At the same time, Biden is up with white voters from where Hillary Clinton was in 2016. The pollsters forecast that, given Biden’s wide lead among Black voters, the race will partly depend on how much further Biden can cut into the white vote. While other polls show he has made inroads among white voters in the upper Midwest — particularly Michigan and Ohio — his gains among white residents of Southern states have not been as strong.

Voters in both states say Biden would do a better job of handling the coronavirus, although most Republicans say Trump is doing a good job with the pandemic.

North Carolina went for Obama in 2008, and for Romney and Trump in 2012 and 2016, but a Democratic presidential candidate has not won Georgia since Bill Clinton’s first run in 1992. In both states, Democratic support comes mostly out of large cities, powered largely by Black voters in places like Raleigh and Atlanta.

These polls don’t mean Biden will win North Carolina or Georgia in November

Polls, as Vox’s Li Zhou has explained, are just a snapshot of a moment of time, and this presidential cycle is unusually turbulent, coming amid a pandemic and social unrest. The political situation in the US could change dramatically in the months before the election, just as it was very different in January.

Voters change their minds; some who respond to polls end up not voting. As Zhou has noted, overreliance on polls led Democrats astray in 2016.

In the last presidential cycle, polls missed all kinds of patterns, leading Democrats to underestimate the strength of Trump’s support in key battleground states.

In the postmortem of that election, Democrats found that pollsters failed to account for factors like education in building their pools of respondents, and did not account for undecided voters who cast ballots for Trump at the last minute.

Those mistakes, as well as a tendency to view poll results as static rather than dynamic, led Democrats to overestimate their party’s standing in certain states — namely, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — and divert campaign resources from them, only to be caught off guard by the level of support for Trump’s campaign.

Many pollsters have corrected the errors that skewed polls four years ago, but those corrections don’t negate the fact that polls like the ones CBS conducted in North Carolina and Georgia only show what people in those states are thinking about the candidates right now.

This means there is reason to be cautious about polls that now find Biden ahead and Trump behind in those battleground states, the key state of Florida, and even more traditionally Republican states like Arizona and Texas.

And as the coronavirus pandemic continues to riddle both campaign efforts and voter turnout models with uncertainty — and as communities struggle to implement adequate replacements for in-person voting — it is fair to say that voter intentions and November’s voting patterns may ultimately diverge.


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