Beware confirmation bias with the 2020 presidential race

What’s the rush to declare the Democratic race a three-person contest?

Yes, it’s early in the 2020 presidential race to be making astute judgments, but certainly the early polling numbers for President Donald Trump are not what one would expect from an incumbent when the economy is healthy, Rothenberg writes.. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Yes, it’s early in the 2020 presidential race to be making astute judgments, but certainly the early polling numbers for President Donald Trump are not what one would expect from an incumbent when the economy is healthy, Rothenberg writes.. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 17, 2019 at 5:30am

OPINION — “The next debate is do or die for many Democratic hopefuls.”

Andrew Yang “is on fire.”

Elizabeth Warren is “surging.”

“It’s a three-way race.”

I’m betting you can think of a long list of other things you’ve heard on television or read in print to explain what is going on in the presidential race. Many of them will need to be revised eventually.

I’ve written often over the years — and even this cycle — that you shouldn’t believe the hype, so I don’t need to warn you about that again, right?

Just remember that people in the media covering elections invariably (with important exceptions) have an interest in showing “movement” and “change” — and they want to be the first to identify a trend and offer predictions — so tone down most of what they say.

Instead, I’ll merely look at where the Democrats stand now and how the president looks as he runs for another term.

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And then there were …

One of the front-runners – former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — may well win the Democratic nomination, but it is still far too early to declare everyone else out of contention.

What’s the rush to label the Democratic race a three-person contest?

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had strong third-debate performances, and California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have top-tier qualities that could help them emerge from the crowd, depending how the three front-runners perform in the months ahead.

Just as important, the Democrats’ top tier is, well, fragile.

Sanders received almost half of the Democratic primary vote in 2016 but is now stuck in the mid-teens, largely confirming the assessment of many party strategists that he won’t have the same appeal the second time around, particularly given the very different field.

He still affects the race, of course, because he shares his populist rhetoric and agenda with Warren.

Warren has had three pretty good debates, and slowly but surely, she has gained some ground in the imaginary Democratic national primary since she kicked off her campaign.

But she’ll need to demonstrate even broader appeal and prove that she can dodge the obvious Republican assault that she is too far left to win a general election. The stronger she looks, the more scrutiny she will receive.

Biden is the pick of many Democrats looking for a safe choice against President Donald Trump, but his performance has been inconsistent (including in the last debate) and plays to those who see him as part of the party’s past, not its future.

His supporters must hold their breath every time he answers a question. To be sure, it’s possible that grassroots Democrats will simply overlook his verbal stumbles, just as GOP voters gave George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush passes when they were sloppy with their language.

It’s simply too early to know, but Biden will be put to the test many more times in debates and on the stump.

The former vice president’s reliance on the support of the African American community is a red flag, given the presence of two well-credentialed black candidates in the race in Harris and Booker.

Should Biden lose a chunk of that support, his campaign would be in serious trouble. Hillary Clinton had excellent support in the black community until Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, for instance.

In spite of the national media’s infatuation with long-shot hopefuls, it seems unlikely that businessman Andrew Yang, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are going anywhere in the race.

Businessman Tom Steyer is both very wealthy and very annoying. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke could break out, I guess, but he still hasn’t established he has any gravitas apart from the gun issue, where he has probably taken his party too far left for general election voters.

So, Democratic voters are likely to take their time sorting through the very large field as they look for someone they like, someone who has their values and views, and someone who is likely to defeat Trump.

Iowa, the first real test of campaign organization and candidate appeal, is still months away.

Mr. Unpopularity

As for Trump, his national poll numbers from highly regarded pollsters remain stunningly bad. His job approval continues to sit in the 40 percent to 44 percent range, and his personal ratings are no better. His “strongly disapprove” job rating is near 50 percent, most polls show, a stunning number for someone presiding over a healthy economy with low unemployment and wage growth.

Hypothetical ballot tests show Trump trailing the top-tier Democrats most likely to be their party’s nominee.

A majority of Americans seem to have decided they don’t like Trump and they don’t like what he has done to the country.

That’s disastrous for a president who was elected almost three years ago and who dominates the news almost daily.

Trump will need to demonize the eventual Democratic nominee, making him or her unacceptable — which guarantees a scorched earth reelection campaign by the GOP and additional risk of an anti-Trump backlash.

The polling we need

But the most astonishing thing so far about the coverage of the 2020 race is the lack of major media polling in the handful of key states that are likely to decide the election.

Do we really need another national poll that shows how unpopular the president is or that the national Democratic race is stagnant?

What we should be getting from the major media are high-quality surveys in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia. What we have seen from those key states is very limited polling that shows Biden (and normally Sanders) significantly ahead of Trump — again, not where an incumbent would want to be at this point in the election cycle.

However, the one truth we can count on is that we don’t know what lies ahead — not in the Democratic contest and not in the general election.