DANIEL VAUGHAN: Uncertainty still rules in this election

With everything that’s gone on in the last several weeks, we’re in uncharted waters right now looking to November’s election. A clear-eyed observer understands that we don’t know how a pandemic, mass riots, a Supreme Court nomination process, and the incumbent president being hospitalized will play out at the ballot box.

But despite all the uncertainty in our lives, we’re told that polling is more stable than ever.

Stability is in the eye of the beholder, though. As everyone was trotting onto the Sunday political shows, the top talking point was the latest poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, which shows Joe Biden up 14 points on Donald Trump.

Those numbers are unmistakably shocking and deserve discussion. Of course, that particular poll has the unique position of always being released in time for the Sunday political shows, helping it achieve maximum political impact.

The poll has an A-minus rating from FiveThirtyEight and a margin of error of 3.5 points. That means it’s a strong indicator that Biden has a healthy lead in the race, right?


The NBC/WSJ poll ran from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1. Two other surveys ran during that exact same time, one from The Hill/HarrisX and another from the Investors Business Daily (IBD) TPP.

Neither showed the same commanding lead from Biden.

The Hill’s poll showed Biden with a 7-point lead among registered voters with a 3.22-point margin of error.

Harris Insights, the polling outfit The Hill used, has a general C-grade from FiveThirtyEight, so you may toss that one aside. And that’s fair. But you can’t toss aside the next poll.

The IBD-TPP poll is an A or B-grade poll from FiveThirtyEight, depending on whether it is a live caller or online survey. That poll showed Joe Biden with only a 3-point lead with a 3.5-point margin of error — a statistical tie.

If you average all three of those polls together, you get an 8-point overall lead for Joe Biden, which falls right in line with where the former vice president has been since summer. Last week, his lead was below seven points, and now it’s around eight in the RealClearPolitics poll averages.

Not much has changed since the debate, in other words. And we’re still waiting to see how Trump’s COVID-19 infection impacts the race. And those three polls, alone, offer any pundit a “choose your own adventure” story for describing where we are in the race.

Is Donald Trump at risk of a blowout loss? Pundits can rely on the NBC News/WSJ poll to spin that narrative to viewers. Has the race not changed at all? They can look at the averages and The Hill’s poll to feed that narrative. Is the race secretly close, and pollsters are missing it, just as they did until the very end of 2016? The IBD/TPP poll is your new best friend to prove a tied race narrative.

In other words, for all the talk about how stable the polls are and Biden’s lead, the data is remarkably noisy, suggesting to us everything from a shot at Trump pulling the upset to Joe Biden being the second coming of Reagan and wiping out the opposing party.

That is a stark level of uncertainty that people are brushing aside for easy narratives about Trump losing and Biden winning.

Add to that what we already know about utterly uncertain our world is right now. We can’t plan anything more than a few weeks out because of the virus.

A pandemic rages across the globe while we’re scrambling to provide answers for it. Solutions, like a vaccine, are being politicized by candidates running for office who want to claim that solution for themselves. Riots, urban unrest, and once-simple pleasures like sports and movie entertainment are limited in ways that prevent people from releasing new content.

We’ve entered the part of election season where the outcome is still far from certain, but there’s a hardening of opinions on what will happen at the end. Many people thought the Access Hollywood video would sink Trump; many of those same people thought we’d be talking about impeachment come election time.

To the crowd of experts claiming, “the longer Biden leads, the worse it is for Trump,” you should know that’s a model talking — not a real analysis. No model has all the uncertainty of our time baked into it, and if it does, it’s raw guesswork on the part of the statisticians. Saying that is a lot like saying that the Atlanta Falcons have increased odds of winning the game the longer their lead lasts into the fourth quarter.

Sure. That’s true. It’s also entirely possible for the Falcons to blow a double-digit lead in the middle of the fourth quarter, just like it was possible for Hillary Clinton to never campaign in Wisconsin down the stretch.

Joe Biden calls lids on his campaign with high frequency, never venturing out. It’s a strategy that may pay off. On the other hand, if the race is close, we’re going to look back at all these days Biden did nothing and ask: Why didn’t he campaign and do what was necessary to win?

Conventional D.C. wisdom is frequently wrong. And right now, the consensus is hardening into what it wants to happen, not necessarily what will occur.

Even if Biden wins, odds are, he’ll win in a manner they won’t expect — and that Democrats won’t learn any lessons from, because they’re so eager to forget the last four years.