Trump’s Polling Lead is Much Larger than It Looks

Photo by Pau Casals

Most political observers are aware that Donald Trump holds a slight lead – about 2 points – over Joe Biden in head-to-head polling nationwide. That lead is a bit larger – about 4-5 points, on average – in the key 5-7 swing states that will actually determine the outcome of the 2024 election.

In fact, Trump’s polling lead over Biden may well be considerably larger, some pollsters say.  It’s just not showing up in their standard surveys.

The reason?  Most polls are based on samples of voters who are either registered to vote or who have voted in two past election cycles – designating them as “likely voters.”  Pollsters, as a rule, like to sample voters based on their demonstrated propensity to vote; as a result, polls invariably exclude potential or “eligible” voters who have fallen off the rolls, or who have never registered.

The problem with that assumption?  These “unlikely” voters sometimes turn out to vote –indeed, in large numbers – defying their past behavior.

That’s exactly what happened in 2016, when Donald Trump’s insurgent candidacy struck a chord among this very voter group, whose members overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Trump.  Voter turn-out was unexpectedly high that election cycle – and first-time voters and previously inactive voters were key to Trump’s victory.

Can we expect something similar in 2024?

Braving convention, USA Today last September decided to separately poll these unlikely voters.  And lo and behold, these unlikely voters, were they to vote, still favor Trump – by a whopping 2-1 margin.  It’s a portentous result that pundits – and even many Democrats – preoccupied with standard head-to-head polling haven’t taken into account thus far.

The precise magnitude of this pool of non-voters is not quite clear.  Eligible voters are US citizens who are old enough to vote but a sizable percentage – 40% or more, on average – never do because of apathy, neglect or outright disgust with the candidates of the two major parties.  Some of these non-participating eligible voters are still registered to vote, but many aren’t.

Even a 5-10% increase in ballot casting by this unlikely voter group could easily swing a presidential election given the razor-thin margins that typically separate the two party candidates in the swing states.

Why would this group tend to support Trump again?

USA Today interviewed some of these unlikely voters to learn more about their antipathy toward voting.   The common refrain was deep distrust of the political establishment of both parties –  but a higher residual support for Trump due to his willingness to buck conventional wisdom and to take positions considered outside the policy mainstream.

Correctly or not, that seems to be the dominant perception, which bodes poorly for Biden and the Democrats should Trump find a fresh way to activate these voters in large numbers.

“It’s just a game; it’s not even serious,” Phillip Benjamin, 40, an engineer from Atlanta, told USA Today interviewers, in a representative reply.  Benjamin is no “Republican-leaner.”  The last time he cast a ballot was for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. But in 2024, if he votes at all,  he’ll be backing Trump over Biden, he says.

The current head-to-head polling reported by most pollsters is bad enough for the current president.  If the balloting were conducted tomorrow, he could lose the popular vote and the electoral vote, reversing recent trends.  But add to the mix a large pool of disgruntled non-voters, and a narrow Trump victory could turn into a decisive one – a prospect that should have Democrats in a near-panic, with the 2024 election still 9 months away.

But there’s little evidence that the party is taking the threat seriously.

Democrats still seem to be in denial.  Publicly, they insist that the polls are “just polls” – snapshots of a race still to be defined.  Over and over they insist that these surveys, no matter how consistent, this far from election day, are simply not “predictive.”

Of course, polls can still be wrong.  Hillary Clinton was expected by most – but not all pollsters – to be headed toward victory in 2016, right up until election day.  But there’s reason to believe that polling is far more predictive now.  2016 was an unusual election as both candidates were non-incumbents without prior governing records.  There wasn’t much for voters to go on.  And there was a lot of volatility in the polling through the campaign cycle, with Clinton displaying large single- and even double-digit leads over Trump.  Those leads, then vanished, then reappeared, over the course of many months.

By contrast, there wasn’t much polling volatility in the last presidential election. At this point in 2020, Biden was leading Trump consistently by a solid 3-5 points.  In fact, not a single poll taken that entire year – not even an outlier – showed Trump in the lead, not even by a small margin.    And that polling turned out to be quite predictive.

Biden won the general election by about 4 points.   In other words, the pollsters got it right.

And 2024?  The race is settling into a similarly consistent pattern, only this time it’s Trump with the narrow lead over Biden.  The pattern hasn’t varied much for several months now.  The two candidates and their respective partisans are dug in.

But there is a major difference:  An unusually large swath of registered and likely voters have yet to commit to either candidate.  These aren’t the unlikely voters identified by USA Today; but like the unlikely voters, these voters are also unusually disgusted with their choices and wish they had more options.

In 2024, some of these disgusted swing voters could swing to a third party candidate.  Together the third-party vote is at its highest level since H. Ross Perot ran in 1992.  RFK, Jr. alone regularly polls between 8% and 17% in 3-way polling – the highest levels seen since H. Ross Perot’s third party run in 1992.  And yet, even in 3-way and 5-way polls, a significant share of the electorate still declares itself “undecided.”

Democrats are worried about this trend, of course, especially RFK, Jr.’s role as a potential ”spoiler” who could draw votes away from Biden.  Some polls do show Trump with a larger lead over Biden with RFK, Jr. added to the mix.  But quite a few do not.  Some even show Biden gaining, marginally.  Most suggest that RFK. Jr could draw equally from Biden and Trump.

But if USA Today is right, Biden may face a much bigger threat from a pool of unlikely voters that Trump’s campaign might mobilize behind him in November.  To do so, however, will take a large campaign chest plus the extensive campaign rallying that Trump is known for.  He’ll also need an exceptionally good ground game to register new voters and to get all of his Trump-leaning voters to the polls.

Trump had all three going for him in 2016, but lost some of his advantage in 2020.  In 2024, Democrats are well aware that Trump could regain his edge, especially against a diminished Biden. That’s one reason they’re going out of their way to use the courts to knock him out of the box – or at least distract him from active campaigning.

So far, this “lawfare” strategy seems to have backfired on Democrats.  If anything Trump has gained over Biden due to a backlash among all voters, but especially among the GOP base.

How are unlikely voters likely to respond to this deepening campaign against Trump?  Will they just stay home, as so many did in 2020, when Trump, not Biden, represented  the face of the establishment?  Or will some register a protest by turning to one of the third-party candidates, perhaps RFK, Jr.?

If USA Today is right, the simmering rage of this oft-neglected voter group has the potential to catapult the former president to the White House yet again – this time in a landslide.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at