Newsom’s Lead in the Polls is Large Enough to Withstand Major Errors

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lead now dwarfs the typical polling error and is large enough to withstand nearly every California polling miss in recent memory.,

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Newsom’s lead is large enough to withstand major polling errors.

Opposition to recalling Mr. Newsom leads by 17 points, 58 to 41 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight average.
Opposition to recalling Mr. Newsom leads by 17 points, 58 to 41 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight average.Credit…Allison Zaucha for The New York Times
  • Sept. 13, 2021, 5:42 p.m. ET

After the polls overestimated Democratic candidates in 2016 and 2020, it is reasonable to wonder whether Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lead in the California recall election might prove as illusory as Hillary Clinton’s lead in Wisconsin or Joe Biden’s in Florida.

It’s not impossible. But Mr. Newsom’s lead now dwarfs the typical polling error and is large enough to withstand nearly every statewide polling miss in recent memory.

Opposition to recalling Mr. Newsom leads by 17 points, 58 to 41 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. Polls in 2020 overestimated the Democrats by an average of about 5 percentage points.

There was no state in either the 2016 or 2020 presidential elections where the final polls missed by 17 percentage points. Perhaps the worst recent polling miss — Senator Susan Collins’s comfortable 9-point victory after trailing in the polls by 3 points — is in the ballpark, but would still fall 5 points short of erasing Mr. Newsom’s lead.

Many of the most embarrassing and high-profile misses for pollsters, such as the 7-point polling errors in Wisconsin in 2016 and 2020, might still leave Mr. Newsom with a double-digit victory.

It is hard to find many precedents for such a large polling error. According to Harry Enten, a writer at CNN, there are only four cases in the last 20 years where the polling average in a race for governor was off by at least 15 percentage points.

Mr. Newsom’s opponents can hope that the idiosyncrasies of a recall election might make it more challenging for pollsters than a typical general election. Special and primary elections often have larger polling errors.

But the polls were fairly accurate in the last California gubernatorial recall and dead-on in the high-profile effort to recall former Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin in 2012. The high turnout in early voting in California so far tends to reduce the risk that an unusual turnout would contribute to a particularly large polling error.

And California is not a state where the polls have missed badly in recent election cycles. The largest polling errors have been in Wisconsin, Maine and other states with large numbers of white working-class voters. That’s not California. Just 22 percent of California voters in 2020 were whites without a four-year college degree, the second lowest of any state, according to census data.

Perhaps as a result, statewide polling in California has generally been fairly accurate.

Joe Biden led the final California polls by 29.2 points, according to FiveThirtyEight.

He won by 29.2 points.

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