Don’t panic about presidential polls – yet

<span>Joe Biden (left) in Raleigh, North Carolina, on 26 March 2024, and Donald Trump in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 2 April 2024.</span><span>Composite: EPA, Getty Images</span>
Joe Biden (left) in Raleigh, North Carolina, on 26 March 2024, and Donald Trump in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 2 April 2024.Composite: EPA, Getty Images

Hello! Welcome back to our new US elections newsletter.

Non-Trump supporters have been all jittery this week, after a poll appeared to show Joe Biden getting royally stuffed by Trump in the election.

The poll had Trump leading Biden in six of the seven states that are key to becoming president. It might seem scary, yes, but it’s too soon to be completely terrified: we’ll look at why in a little bit.

First, some of the happenings in US politics.

Here’s what you need to know …

1. Trump is (still) in court

Summer is almost here in New York. The bees are out, the birds are singing. And Michael Cohen is singing, too! Cohen, who spent a decade as Trump’s lawyer and hatchet man, has been telling a Manhattan court how he paid Stormy Daniels, an adult film actor, to keep quiet about her alleged affair with Trump. Cohen said he did so at the direction of Trump, to help his chances of winning the 2016 election. That’s a crime, which wouldn’t bode well for Trump’s re-election chances.

2. Mixed primary results for Republicans

Barring the unprecedented, Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be the Democratic and Republican candidates in November – but the presidential primaries are still going on, and sometimes they tell us interesting things. Like in Maryland and Nebraska, for example, where on Tuesday about 20% of Republicans voted for Nikki Haley – who dropped out of the presidential race in March – over Trump. It suggests the former-president has some wooing to do to win over Republicans.

3. Will tariffs excite voters?

Tariffs are not the sexiest thing a president can announce. But Biden will be hoping they have some impact, after he increased tariffs – essentially the amount of taxes a country has to pay to sell its goods – on a number of Chinese imports. The new tariffs affect steel and aluminium, which are traditionally important products in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan. He also jacked up tariffs on electric vehicles, in a move the White House says will protect jobs.

Don’t panic … at least not yet

Monday mornings are rarely enjoyable, but for people concerned about a second Trump term, this week’s was worse than usual. “Trump Leads in 5 Key States,” blared a New York Times headline, “As Young and Nonwhite Voters Express Discontent With Biden.”

This newsletter isn’t usually about polling and numbers and abacuses: it’s called the Stakes, not the Odds. But bear with me, because it is worth taking a look at the New York Times/Siena College poll that prompted that headline – and hundreds of scary follow-up stories by other media outlets.

The newspaper knocked up a graphic that shows Biden down in Nevada by 12 points; in Georgia by 10 points; and by seven points in both Arizona and Michigan. Biden was also behind in Pennsylvania, but had a small lead in Wisconsin.

Most states vote very predictably: New York has been Democratic for ages; Alabama, Republican. But these five are swing states – ones that Biden and Trump both have a shot at winning. Each candidate would need to win some combination of swing states to take the White House.

Not very good for Democrats, eh? But how much should they really be worried?

Maybe not as much as you may think. For one thing, those terrifying numbers were a result of asking registered voters how they planned to vote.

But not every registered voter actually votes: some aren’t excited about the candidates, others just can’t be bothered. In 2020, 168 million people were registered to vote. Only 158m actually did.

This is important because when the New York Times questioned people who said they were likely to vote – not just registered – the results became much closer.

Among these people who are planning to vote, Biden is actually slightly ahead in Michigan (as opposed to being seven points behind). He is still slightly behind in Pennsylvania, and one point behind in Wisconsin, but well within the margin of error. (That’s another thing: these polls are only accurate to within plus or minus 3.5%.)

So in Michigan, in Pennsylvania – where Biden grew up – and in Wisconsin, the race is essentially too close to call. And that’s important, because if Biden can win these three states, that should be enough to get him re-elected.

In the 2016 presidential election, a lot of journalists and news outlets convinced themselves Trump was going to lose in large part from looking at polls. Of course, everyone got it wrong.

That prompted all sorts of hand-wringing among the press. In the future, there would be less focus on single polls. Everyone would report on issues instead. As is often the case with the (pretty self-serious) American media, noble think pieces were written, apologies were issued.

Yet it feels like we’re back at it again: one poll, being reported on, again and again, scaring the hell out of everybody.

I have nothing against polls. I listen to the FiveThirtyEight podcast, which bases its political analysis almost exclusively on polling. They can also tell us useful things about how different people feel – for example, that young people are less enthusiastic about Biden than they were in 2020, while some Black voters also appear to be drifting away from the president.

But as Leah Askarinam, a reporter at AP, told that podcast this week: “These are helpful numbers. [But] it is six months away from the election.”

Askarinam added: “These polls are not telling us who is winning and who is losing right now.” So nobody should get all in a tizzy just yet.

‘It’s a stupid request’

Michael Cohen is the key witness in Trump’s ongoing criminal trial, but not everyone will know who he is. Well, Cohen worked for Trump from 2006 to 2018 as his personal attorney – but Cohen was really Trump’s attack dog: charged with going after anyone who upset his boss.

Cohen was known to a lot of reporters as a shouty, sweary menace, and I thought it was worth sharing with you my own brush with him, in 2012.

Trump – at that time, just a loudmouth reality TV star – had demanded that Barack Obama publish his passport records, claiming Obama had not been born in the US. I thought it would be amusing to call Trump Tower and ask whether Trump would publish his own records.

I got Cohen, who found it less amusing, and quickly became upset. He accused me of “trying to be funny” (fair), called my request “stupid” (bit mean), said Trump would release his passport records if I sent him mine (!), asked me to donate $5m to charity (!!), then hung up on me.

I never did get Trump’s passport records, and I never heard from Cohen again, but happily, I recorded our conversation.

Who had the worst week?

Rudy Giuliani. The man who led New York through the 9/11 attacks, then went from America’s mayor to America’s weirdo in what felt like the blink of an eye, Giuliani lost what was left of his reputation during Trump’s presidency – particularly through a doomed attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which reached its nadir when he hosted a press conference at a landscaping business located between a crematorium and sex shop.

Things have gone from bad to worse since then. In December last year, Giuliani was ordered to pay $148.1m to two election workers after he lied about them. Then he filed for bankruptcy.

This week, his radio show was canceled because he wouldn’t stop lying about the 2020 election. He’s also having to sell his apartment.

Born to lie

Donald Trump wishes he was the Boss – or at least that he drew the same crowds and loyalty in New Jersey. At a rally over the weekend, Trump claimed to have a “much bigger crowd” than Bruce Springsteen.

The city of Wildwood estimated Trump’s attendance at 80,000. Trump claimed 100,000. But the city previously said the event’s capacity was just 20,000. Radio station New Jersey 101.5 reported that the city and Trump’s claims of crowd size are “wildly overestimated”.

Meanwhile, according to the local Asbury Park Press, Springsteen drew about 180,000 people across three shows the last time he played a stadium in his home state.

Springsteen has called the former president’s time in office “a fucking nightmare” and campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

- Rachel Leingang, misinformation reporter

Elsewhere in US politics

• “A split has emerged in the Never Trump movement in the Republican party,” says David Smith, with some of the Trump-averse Republicans no longer bold or brave enough to not vote for the former president.

Blue-collar voters have lined up increasingly behind Trump, Steven Greenhouse writes, but experts say Biden can win them back.

• Republicans could flip a Senate seat in Maryland in November, which would not be good news for Democrats, explains Joan E Greve.

Words fail us