Latest Emerson polls show Biden leading in key battleground states


Lizzie Heintz

Emerson Polling Director Spencer Kimball

By Dana Gerber and Elena Naze

With in-person voting set to open tomorrow, Emerson Polling’s final state and national polls of the general election show Democratic candidate Joe Biden with strong leads over incumbent President Donald Trump both nationally and in several key battleground states.

The organization’s latest and last round of state polls, taken Oct. 29 to 31 and dubbed “Super Poll Sunday” on its website, show that Biden leads in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Ohio—states that all swung for Trump in 2016. In Wisconsin, Biden led by eight percentage points. He led by seven percentage points in Michigan, four in Pennsylvania, two in Arizona, and one in Ohio. Trump holds a lead of one percentage point in Iowa, and polls show a toss up in North Carolina, both of which pulled for the incumbent president in the last election. 

The margin of error varies in each state poll but typically rests in the plus or minus three percent range.

Nationally, an Emerson poll conducted Oct. 25 to 26 with a 2.8 percentage point margin of error showed Biden with a five percentage point lead over Trump in the popular vote.  

In the survey, which had a sample of 1,121 voters, Biden led in urban and suburban voters, and Trump held a compelling lead with rural voters. While 99 percent of Democrats support Biden, 93 percent of Republicans surveyed said they’d be voting for Trump. Additionally, the majority of voters “disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president.”  

Both major candidates had increased slightly in popularity since Emerson’s September national poll. 

That poll also estimated that more Democrats than Republican voters will opt to vote by mail, with Republicans predicted to show up to the physical polls at a higher rate. Trump has openly disparaged mail-in voting, citing unfounded fraud concerns.

Emerson Polling is a nonprofit organization Kimball started in 2017 that conducts both state and national political opinion polls, often dealing with issues of policy and candidate preference. Emerson Polling, a charter member of the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) Transparency Initiative, is the professional arm of Emerson College Polling Society, the SGA-recognized student organization that Kimball also started in 2012. Emerson Polling is often cited by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, CBS, and The Hill. The organization’s Twitter page has approximately 30,000 followers. 

In addition to polling on candidate popularity, Emerson Polls on issues relevant to the upcoming election. For about one-third of Republican voters, the economy is the biggest issue. For Democrats, the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic is the most pressing concern.

However, the national polls estimate the winner of the popular vote, not the electoral college, where candidates must clinch at least 270 electors to win. In general, polling isn’t a surefire way to predict the outcome of an election, Spencer Kimball, the director of Emerson Polling, said. 

“I’ve learned we’re good pollsters, not good predictors,” Kimball said in an interview. “It’s really still up in the ballots.”

That reality was clear in 2016, when Emerson Polling predicted a landslide 323-215 electoral college victory for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate who ultimately won the popular vote but lost the electoral college. They projected she would win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida, key battleground states that ultimately went to Trump. However, they correctly predicted 16 congressional races in eight states. 

Since 2016, Emerson Polling changed their methodology, pivoting from conducting polls only via landline communication to a combination of landline respondents and online panels. This led to a boosted rating on FiveThirtyEight, statistician Nate Silver’s website analyzing polling, from a B+ in 2016 to an A- today. FiveThirtyEight also calculated Emerson Polling to be the fourth most accurate pollster in the 2020 primary elections. 

Kimball said he speculates that this election’s turnout will resemble that of the 2016 Presidential Election, but there is the possibility that a new swath of voters will emerge.

“You don’t have to go further back than 2016 to realize that there’s a lot of moving parts in an election—things that you can’t see, shifting underground,” Kimball said. “But what happens if a lot of the Obama group that came out in 2008 says, ‘No, I’m back,’ and all of a sudden five million new Obama voters come back into the polls that weren’t there? That’s going to throw off a lot of it.”