Hoover Senior Fellows David Brady And Douglas Rivers Revisit Election Day Predictions

Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – The 2020 US presidential race revealed long-term demographic trends that favor the Democratic Party in future elections, argued senior fellows David Brady and Douglas Rivers in an episode of Hoover Virtual Policy Briefings on November 17.

In the session, moderated by research fellow Bill Whalen, Brady and Rivers revisited predictions by prominent pre-election polls. They explained that while national polls were off by approximately two points in favor of Joe Biden, those in individual battleground states were at the high end of the margin-of-error range.

As an example, the YouGov (of which Rivers is the chief scientist) estimate for Wisconsin had Biden winning the Badger State by nearly 6.8 points, with a margin of error of almost 5.9 points. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, totals show Biden winning Wisconsin by less than a percentage point. However, Brady and Rivers explained, the unprecedented election turnout of 155 million voters made accurate estimates more difficult to achieve, since pollsters could not adequately measure the attitudes of people who had not voted in previous elections.

The election was a referendum on Donald Trump’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hoover senior fellows explained. While as much as 80 percent of Trump voters explicitly affirmed their support for the president, 55 percent of Biden voters stated that the intention of their vote was directed at removing Trump from office. A shift of independents who voted for Trump in 2016 toward Biden were enough to swing key battleground states. Brady and Rivers maintained that Biden’s candidacy didn’t help Democrats running in key down-ticket congressional cases, as Republicans picked up at least eight additional seats in the House of Representatives.

Despite these Republican gains in Congress, Brady and Rivers believe that the country is largely trending long term toward the Democratic Party, which has over the past two decades been able to wrest a number of states away from Republican control. This past election, the Democratic Party was able to attain small margins of victory in traditionally conservative strongholds in Arizona and Georgia and was just a few points behind in winning Texas, which has been solidly Republican for four decades. 

Brady and Rivers maintained, however, that Republican gains among ethnic minorities are real and should not be understated. Biden did not perform as well as Hillary Clinton did among African Americans, and Trump received one-third of all Latino voters. They also acknowledged variables that might change voting attitudes and undermine these long-term trends. For example, while people with more college education tend to favor Democratic candidates, these voters may in the future support Republican tax and regulatory policies as their income levels rise.

Rivers emphasized that there is too much focus on the use of polling to predict election outcomes. The most valuable utility of polling he said, is to offer a voice to citizens to express their preferences about policies and politicians. He also noted that political polarization in America is diminishing this value provided by the polling industry.

“If you can identify someone as a Trump voter or an anti-Trump voter, you know exactly how they are going to feel on a whole range of issues,” Rivers said. “It would be a healthier environment for governing, and polling would be informative, if there weren’t these high levels of polarization.”

Brady lamented the increasing public distrust about the American electoral system. He specified that this trust deficit needs to be closed in a manner that considers the reality that mail-in voting will likely be a permanent feature of elections.

“My view is that that we should work a little harder to try and straighten out how votes are going to be counted in a standardized way so that in every election we don’t get these charges of voter fraud or questions of voter suppression,” Brady said. “The electoral reform movements are coming along those lines; each one needs to be thought through very carefully.”