Welcome to Poll Watch, our weekly look at polling data and survey research on the candidates, voters and issues that will shape the 2020 election. This week is the first in a series of entries looking at polling trends in individual states, with an eye to how pollsters are adjusting after the miscues of 2016.
Frustrated with their options and startled by an 11th-hour letter from the F.B.I. director castigating Hillary Clinton, undecided voters in 2016 broke hard for Donald J. Trump, while many in key Democratic constituencies simply stayed home.
In the four years since, things have swung heavily in the other direction. College-educated voters and women voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the 2018 midterm elections, flipping the House blue. This year, the president’s inability to contain the coronavirus has added to many voters’ frustration with him, and he has struggled to find a message that can draw back Americans at the political center. With voter enthusiasm surging, political observers say this could be the highest-turnout election in the country’s history, despite the pandemic.
For all these trends, there may be no better microcosm than Michigan, a state that tipped for Mr. Trump in 2016 by just over 10,000 votes — making it the geographic and symbolic center of the country’s political realignment.
A poll released Friday by The Detroit Free Press showed Joseph R. Biden Jr. leading Mr. Trump by eight percentage points in the state, roughly in line with his advantage in other polls — powered by the same anti-Trump sentiment that helped Democrats flip two suburban House districts in 2018.
Still, the Republican base in Michigan is strong, and it shows up at the polls more consistently than Democratic voters. That was part of what carried Mr. Trump to victory in 2016, when voter enthusiasm was low across the board.
This year, however, conscious that their ballots could again help decide the election, Michiganders of all political persuasions report being heavily motivated to vote. That’s a bad sign for Mr. Trump, who has never received a predominantly positive review from the roughly four in 10 Americans who identify as independents.
“Donald Trump didn’t win Michigan because there was a surge of Trump voters,” Richard Czuba, the founder of the Glengariff Group, a Lansing-based polling firm, said in an interview. “He won Michigan because there was a dearth of Democratic voters.”
Mr. Czuba gathers public opinion data each election year to calculate the average level of voter motivation, as reported by respondents using a 10-point scale. This month, a Glengariff poll for the television station WDIV and The Detroit News found that motivation levels in Michigan were nearly off the charts: Both Democrats and Republicans were averaging around 9.8, with independents not far behind at 9.2. In October 2016, the average for all voters hovered around 6.
Voters that year who leaned Democratic but weren’t strongly partisan averaged only 4.7 on the 10-point motivation scale, contributing to weak turnout for Mrs. Clinton in areas where she had expected to rack up votes. Together with some James Comey-driven defections, the result was a polling failure that still reverberates today.
Avoiding a 2016 polling redux
The polls were so faulty in Michigan in 2016 that they whiffed in both the Democratic primary and the general election, overestimating Mrs. Clinton’s strength both times. In the primary, many polls underestimated young people’s share of the electorate. In the general, many polls failed to correct for the fact that white men without college degrees — a key part of Mr. Trump’s base — are among the most difficult to reach.
A Michigan State University poll just before the election gave Mrs. Clinton a 17-point lead partly because it didn’t weight its data to ensure that it properly represented the share of white noncollege voters.
The perception was so tilted toward a Clinton victory that The Detroit Free Press called the race early on election night in her favor, “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style, reversing itself after all the results had been counted.
But pollsters have sought to correct for the kinds of mistakes that led to an underestimation of Mr. Trump’s strength four years ago, adjusting to account for his support among less educated white voters and in some cases striving to reach more cellphone respondents.
Also working in their favor: Far fewer voters are undecided this year, lowering the likelihood of a late break in one direction or the other.
The trend in Michigan toward Democrats over the past four years has been driven largely by white women and college-educated voters, as it has been nationwide. The phenomenon has been most visible in the suburbs just north of Detroit and Ann Arbor, where the pollster Stanley Greenberg first coined the term “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s to describe the moderates who were flipping in large numbers to support Ronald Reagan.
Since then, much of the region has been solidly Republican. But the insurgent Democratic candidates Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens both won decisive victories in 2018 House elections there, turning their districts blue.
“The changes in Oakland County have been shocking,” Mr. Czuba said, referring to a suburban county that runs through both Ms. Slotkin’s and Ms. Stevens’s districts. “Oakland County used to be the breadbasket of the Republican Party. In the 1980s, Democrats would not have even considered winning Oakland County. But now we’re in a position where Oakland County has become a blood bath for the Republican Party.”
Mr. Trump has also been leaking support in the western part of the state, long a Republican stronghold, and home to a heavily religious Protestant electorate. Two years ago in the governor’s race, Gretchen Whitmer won populous Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, a typically Republican area in Western Michigan that had voted for Mr. Trump. Representative Fred Upton, a Republican representing the southwestern corner of the state, won re-election by less than five points in 2018, the narrowest margin of his career.
The pollster Bernie Porn, whose firm, EPIC-MRA, conducts surveys on behalf of The Detroit Free Press, said that it had found that respondents in Western Michigan registered a drop in approval for Mr. Trump after his photo op in front of St. John’s Church in Washington. But he added that Mr. Trump’s recent emphasis on crime and safety had resonated there in ways it didn’t elsewhere, helping the president recover some support in the most recent Free Press poll.
“Some of the messaging that Trump is using in terms of crime in the cities — that is starting to take effect,” Mr. Porn said.
Voting and the virus
Now nearly two years into her term as governor, Ms. Whitmer has earned high marks from a wide range of voters for her handling of the pandemic. Her approval rating is particularly strong among women, independent voters and those over 65.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly picked public fights with Ms. Whitmer this year, voicing his support for right-wing protests against her coronavirus restrictions. But those restrictions were popular, and although the demonstrators at the State Capitol drew widespread news coverage, polls have shown the majority of Michigan voters — including many in small towns and suburbs — have not been in a hurry to reopen.
“The issue that matters in Michigan is the virus,” Mr. Czuba said, noting that the state’s populous southeast was hit hard in the spring. “That is what’s registering, in a way that the economy used to register.”
He said that when Mr. Trump had attacked Ms. Whitmer, it alienated female voters in particular — more than two-thirds of whom approved of her handling of the virus in this month’s WDIV/Detroit News poll.
“The interaction Governor Whitmer had with the president where he said, don’t talk to ‘that woman in Michigan’ — I think that really galvanized voters,” Mr. Czuba said. “I think it really galvanized female voters.”
As in many states, Michigan’s voting process has been filled with legal squabbles. But the state mostly got one big question out of the way in 2018, when voters approved a referendum allowing anyone registered to vote to cast an absentee ballot. Jocelyn Benson, the secretary of state, has so far beaten back a Republican challenge over her decision to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters during the 2020 primaries, and her office sent out a postcard in August encouraging all voters to go online to request absentee ballots for the general election. In polls, well over half of Democrats have said they plan to vote absentee.
A smooth voting process would remove the major obstacle between a fired-up electorate and potentially record-setting turnout in November. The biggest concern that the Biden campaign would then face is a drop in enthusiasm from voters at the core of his coalition, as Mrs. Clinton experienced in 2016.
In contrast to her campaign, Mr. Biden’s team has made a point of spending time in Michigan and is working to drive up enthusiasm from voters in the Democratic stronghold of southeastern Michigan, particularly African-Americans in Detroit and Flint.
“Hillary Clinton’s campaign totally ignored Michigan,” said Charles Ballard, the director of the State of the State Survey at Michigan State. “Joe Biden was in Michigan two days ago. They’re not going to ignore us this time.”