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Why Biden's poll lead is different from Hillary Clinton's

Not all leads are created equal. Here are the ways that Joe Biden’s advantage in the polls is different from Hillary Clinton's in October 2016.
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WASHINGTON — For many political junkies and analysts, the 2020 presidential campaign feels eerily familiar. The national polls show that the Democrat has a big lead. Some usually Republican states seem to be in play. And the Trump campaign is relying heavily on a strategy of focusing on its base.

It's all very 2016, and it has Trump and Biden supporters wondering whether the result in November could look similar, as well.

The similarities to four years ago are impossible to ignore, but a closer look at the poll numbers shows that there are some important differences this year, even beyond the Covid-19 pandemic and a high unemployment rate.

Let's start with the big similarity, which also holds a big difference. Last week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (conducted Oct. 9-12) showed Joe Biden ahead of President Donald Trump by 11 percentage points among registered voters. In 2016, a poll conducted on almost the exact same days (Oct. 10-13) showed Hillary Clinton ahead of Trump by 10 points among registered voters.

But there is a big difference. Biden is over 50 percent in last week's poll, (53 percent to be precise), while Clinton was at 47 percent in 2016. That means that, as of the end of the week, Biden was in a much stronger position than Clinton was.

Even if Trump gathered up all the other non-Biden votes, he would be at only 47 percent. That would be 1 point better than the 46 percent he got in the final 2016 tally. At 53 percent, Biden is already 5 points higher than the 48 percent Clinton got in the final 2016 tally.

There is another similarity that works out to be a big difference: the number of people who believe the country is "off on the wrong track." In the latest poll, that number, 62 percent, is very close to where it was in 2016, 65 percent.

Why is that similarity a difference? Because a high wrong-track number tends to be thought of as a problem for the incumbent party. The fact that 62 percent of voters feel bad about where the country is headed means they may be more likely to be looking for a change in leadership. In 2016, Trump was the change agent. In 2020, he's the man in power. Incumbency has its privileges, but it also has its problems.

The other differences from 2016 to 2020 are a bit more Biden-specific.

First off, there are the feelings people have about him. He is in positive territory with voters, while Clinton wasn't.

Among all registered voters, 43 percent say they have positive feelings toward Biden, while 42 percent say they have negative feelings; that's a net positive of 1. That may not sound like much, but at this point in 2016, Clinton's "feeling thermometer" was a net minus-10. Her numbers were 40 percent positive vs. 50 percent negative.

And for comparison, Trump's current feeling rating is a 42 percent positive and 53 percent negative — a net minus-11.

The numbers also look different among some very important voter groups: independent voters, voters 65 and older and white voters. Biden is doing better against Trump than Clinton did in 2016.

Among independent voters, always an important part of the electorate in a time when Democrats and Republicans tend to vote along hyperpartisan lines, Biden holds a 7-point lead over Trump. Four years ago, Trump narrowly led among independents by 1 point.

In addition, many more independents have settled on one of the two major candidates in 2020 than in 2016: 85 percent vs. 62 percent. That means there may be less chance for movement among them.

Older voters have also flipped their partisan allegiances in this year's poll. Biden leads Trump among voters 65 and older by 10 percentage points, 54 percent to 44 percent. In 2016, Trump narrowly led among those voters, 46 percent to 45 percent.

That's important, because senior voters tend to vote in larger numbers than the nation as a whole, and many of them live in battleground states. Seniors are a greater percentage of the population in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin than in the nation overall.

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And finally, Biden has made inroads among white voters compared to Clinton. Biden still isn't winning white voters, but he is losing them by only 4 points, 46 percent to 50 percent for Trump. In 2016, Clinton trailed Trump by 9 points among whites.

That matters because whites are still the largest share of the electorate by far, much larger than the share made up by minority-group voters. In 2016, whites made up 74 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. In other words, every percentage point of movement equals a lot of voters.

What's the significance of Biden's trailing Trump by 4 points among white voters? In 2008, Barack Obama lost the white vote by 12 percentage points to Sen. John McCain, but he still won the popular vote, 53 percent to 46 percent.

The polls can still move, of course, but Nov. 3 is only a little more than two weeks away. And even if 2020 may look and feel a bit like 2016 to some — with a surprise ending looming — the numbers suggest that there are some substantial differences this year.