Prepare for lots of campaign motion — and little actual movement



For the next six months, a week won’t go by without three to five poll releases both nationally and in the battleground states. And yet, as much of a numbers junkie as I am, as much of a data nerd I proclaim to be, I’m going to do my best to take every result with a grain of salt. And if I pay attention to anything in these polls, it will be trends that continue for more than two straight polls.

Here’s why: Ultimately, this election is going to be decided by the “double-haters” — those who are sour on both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — and the unenthusiastic partisans. And if history is any guide — shoot, if all of our own lives are any guide — it’s likely we aren’t going to see any significant movement in the polls until the very last minute.

Why do I believe this? It’s basic human nature. When you don’t like doing something that you have to do, you wait until the last possible minute to do it.

We all remember the long paper from high school or college, when we hated some combination of the assignment or the class or the book we had to read but knew we had to focus on it at some point if we wanted to pass the class. Typically, those papers didn’t get done too far in advance.

For the double-haters in this election, there is no compelling reason to make a decision early. And figuring out which way these voters lean will be one of the most difficult polling challenges of 2024. Perhaps geography or age or marital status will be important clues about their ultimate vote choices. But make no mistake, this group of voters will be sitting in pollsters’ undecided column until at least October.

Double-haters also have plenty of incentive to wait if they truly are undecided. Maybe they want to see how Trump’s trials play out. Maybe they want to see how Biden holds up on the trail. Maybe they are waiting to see whom Trump picks as his running mate.

These voters who might actually be vacillating between the two candidates are one of two types of swing voters who will dominate the attention of the two campaigns (and the political media). The other type is the unenthusiastic partisans.

These are folks who always vote the same way — when they vote.

What motivates them to go to the polls this year? Will it be love and devotion to a specific candidate? I think those voters are already known to us. The voters I’m talking about are the ones who can’t stand the other side but don’t love their own party’s standard bearer.

They are slightly different from the double-haters, with long voting histories on one side but a simple lack of enthusiasm about their side’s guy in 2024. These are the young progressives on the left or the younger, socially moderate financial conservatives on the right. Some of these voters are older centrists who thought they were socially liberal but feel rejected by the left because they aren’t progressive enough. There are also skeptical anti-establishmentarians who gave up on Democrats and voted for Trump once or twice out of an urge to “stick it to the elite” but can’t really defend his character and don’t view him as the answer to our problems.

What motivates these voters could come down to outside events, like a dramatic change in the economic environment or an incident that creates the perception that public safety is at risk.

I’m of the belief the immigration issue becomes a voting issue only if it is perceived as a threat to public safety. If you spend a lot of time online, particularly in right-wing circles, you probably think immigration has already transformed into a public safety issue, but despite the efforts of many trying to mainstream this threat, it’s just not yet reality.

And then there’s abortion, which could become a huge motivator for voters under 40 to show up, depending on the state.

All of this is a warning not to overreact to any poll trend you think you see developing between now and October. The voters who matter most are the voters who are the most fickle about the current political situation. And the more fickle you are as a voter, the higher variance there is in both your likelihood to vote and which way that vote goes.

Now that I have my “pay less attention to the horse race polls until October” warning out of the way, I want to posit one more likely scenario that the political world is underrating: the likelihood of a more decisive presidential result than we’ve seen in years.

We have a tendency in politics to overrate the most recent election results and let them be our guide to what’s going to happen next.

The first 20 years of this century were the most competitive between the two parties in over a century. Did you know that just five presidential elections in the entire 20th century were decided by less than 5 percentage points in the popular vote? This young century has already seen all but one presidential election (five of six — and yes, I’m counting 2000 as this century) decided by less than 5 points, meaning we’ve already matched the 20th century mark for close elections.

We haven’t had this kind of streak of polarized competitiveness between the two parties since Reconstruction, when the elections of 1868 through 1892 were all decided by small margins.

And perhaps, culturally, we haven’t been this divided as a country since the Reconstruction era. What do they say about history? It may not repeat, but it does rhyme.

The point is this: Before the Trump era, it was quite common for all close elections in a year (particularly on the state level) to tip in one direction, as swing voters ended up moving in about the same direction, whether they were voting in North Carolina or North Dakota. We’ve seen one party pick up five or more Senate seats in a given cycle (see 2006 or 2014), even as it wins all of the close races by 3 points or less.

And while a statistician would argue we haven’t had enough presidential elections in total in the country to draw larger trend lines, it is notable that more often than not, we do pick a direction decisively (if only temporarily).

So two outcomes that may be more possible than the 2016 or 2020 results are Trump’s winning the presidency (and the popular vote this time) and also bringing with him the House and the Senate, giving him the governing trifecta. Or alternatively, Biden wins and he gets the governing trifecta because every Democratic incumbent in a red state (see Ohio and Montana) narrowly holds on, perhaps thanks to abortion. In that scenario, Biden’s win also brings the House to the Democrats and North Carolina probably also turns blue, giving Biden a more decisive Electoral College win.

The Florida factor

There’s a lot of chatter right now about what the abortion-rights referendum will mean for Florida’s political competitiveness. I believe the abortion-rights initiative will pass because of the second ruling the Florida Supreme Court made. By greenlighting the new six-week abortion ban into law (beginning next month), it has given voters a stark choice to make in Florida — they have either one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country or one of the least restrictive. There’s no in-between.

Perhaps had the default been the current Florida law for the next 28 days (a 15-week limit on abortion), the abortion proposition would struggle to get the 60% support it needs. But with the alternative being a six-week ban, I can’t imagine this initiative not passing in a presidential turnout year, even with a 60% threshold.

Now, just because there’s most likely a supermajority of Florida voters against the six-week ban doesn’t mean Democrats are automatically going to benefit. The party certainly stands to gain, thanks to a likely increase in youth turnout — but enough to start winning U.S. Senate or House seats? That’s where I’m a tad more skeptical.

There’s still a lot that has to play out in the internal politics of abortion on the right. How Trump decides to vote on his home-state ballot measure is going to be fascinating. Does he say he opposes the measure but wishes it were more lenient and promise to work on that if elected president? That’s probably not good politics for him, as we’ve seen a majority of the country isn’t comfortable with 15 weeks if 24 weeks is an option.

I know my friends on the right believe 15 weeks is an acceptable number, but only if it’s a choice between 15 weeks and six weeks. I think many of them mistake “tolerance” for 15 weeks for “preference.” It isn’t a “preference,” but it’s tolerable if the alternative is even more limited access.

And here’s one more thing to think about: If Florida does pass this abortion-rights ballot initiative, it takes away the most potent issue Florida Democrats had and have against Florida Republicans in 2026. Would passage save the GOP from a beating by the voters at the polls if state voters no longer see their abortion position as a threat? It certainly has the potential to let the Republicans recover without as much electoral pain if the abortion issue isn’t front and center in 2026 for the governor’s race.



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