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Making sense of the polling data after Biden's debate performance


After President Biden's poor debate performance, many nervous elected Democrats say they are waiting on more polls and more data before they pass judgment on whether the president should be their nominee. Biden, of course, insists that he is staying in the race regardless, but the polls are playing a key role in how Democrats are seeing things. So how should we interpret them? And what, if anything, are they actually saying right now? And what exactly should we pay attention to?

The person to talk to about all of this, of course, is NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, somebody who has spent hundreds of hours of his life analyzing polls, helping create polls, trying to determine what they actually mean. Domenico, thank you for coming in.

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DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Great to be here again, Scott.

DETROW: So we have seen multiple surveys in recent days showing the race seeming to drift away from President Biden. How much, if anything should we take away from them?

MONTANARO: Well, like, there's no doubt that Biden has slipped a couple points since the debate, but is that a short-term dip? Is it something more lasting? Is it because the Democratic Party is not completely unified? You know, and there's usually a period of volatility in the days after a major political event. As a rule of thumb, pollsters talk about waiting maybe two weeks or so for public opinion to settle down. It might be different in this election because of how hyperpolarized the environment is and people being very dug in that we might not see much change. Here's Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts polling for NPR.

LEE MIRINGOFF: There has not been a lot of movement because you have two factors, Biden's age and Trump's not telling the truth. And for a lot of independent voters, that was already there. It's now been reinforced in both ways.

MONTANARO: And look, the Democratic hand-wringing might not settle down because we're going to see the Republicans next week have a convention. Likely to get a bounce out of that - and Democrats are gonna have to figure out how they coalesce around whoever the nominee is by the time their convention happens next month.

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DETROW: All of what we see here is public polling from organizations that usually partners with members of the media or academic institutions. Biden and many other politicians love to deride public polls, saying they're just not good. So let me ask this. Is there any other way to understand which way the wind is blowing right now politically?

MONTANARO: Well, first of all, politicians love to deride public polls when the public polls aren't on their side, right?

DETROW: Yes, yes.

MONTANARO: So that's what we see. But, you know, there are other political weather vanes, and those are politicians themselves. And I always like to say, let's watch politicians' in campaigns body language if you really want to know where the race is - where a race is headed. And what I mean by that is that members of Congress, presidential campaigns - they poll all the time. They hire some of the best pollsters. In presidential campaigns, they track results daily.

So when you want to see how things are going, watch what they do. They change advertising messages. Do they decide to hold campaign stops somewhere or change where they're going? Or they begin to publicly criticize, for example, the president of their own party, and it's usually based on something they've seen in their own polling.

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DETROW: Let's talk more about the difference between private campaign polling and the public polls that we see and talk about and take part in. What's the best way to think about the difference there?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, the biggest difference really is that campaign polls are generally better at focusing on the horse race, looking at the numbers. They track day to day on how someone's doing. Public polls are really better at looking at issues and trends over time.

DETROW: So given all of that and given the movement - but relatively small movement that we've seen in recent weeks, does this mean that this is less of a crisis for Democrats than they think? Is that the takeaway or no?

MONTANARO: We don't know. I mean, there's a lot of stuff that's flying right now...


MONTANARO: ...And coming at people. But the numbers are going to change bit by bit. Most likely, what pollsters are saying is that we're going to see movement at the margins, a close election. And really, it's going to be determined by how these campaigns are able to mobilize their groups of voters, whatever the polls say or not.

DETROW: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.