Memories of Polling Past

Thinking back to about this time in 2011.

polling-stick-figures-1Keeping in mind, of course, the caveat that the future is unwritten and all that, and noting that I really am not making predictions but instead trying to analyze, let me note an example of why I am skeptical of polling at this stage of the primary process.  I was reading Dan Drezner’s most recent column and he reminded me of one Herman “9-9-9” Cain.

I have noted more than once here at OTB that Rudy Giuliani was doing quite well in the polls in 2007 (before crashing and burning in the 2008 nomination process).  Giuliani’s candidacy had similarities to Trump insofar as he had celebrity status and massive name recognition (but also was unlikely to be successful with southern social conservatives when push came to shove, among other problems).  Giuliani at least had some legitimate political experience to bring to the table and it is understandable that many people saw him, however briefly, as a serious candidate (as opposed to Trump, but ah well).  Still, some may not find the Rudy comparison illuminating on this issue.

However, let’s consider Herman Cain.  Cain was a former businessman and talk radio host who had a run at his party’s nomination to be a candidate for the US, which he failed to secure (more campaign experience, for what it worth, than Trump has).  Cain had a massive rise in the polls in November to December of 2011 and led the Republican field for over a month before eventually dropping out and not even participating in the voting portion of the contest.  Cain was a political nobody who made a lot of bombastic, and yet empty, political claims.  He has a minor celebrity status that he cashed in on.  One thing was certain, however:  he was never going to be the nominee, regardless of leading in the polls.  And while his rise is not that same as Trumps, it does show that a candidate who has zero shot at winning could lead in the polls at levels at, or above what Trump currently has.  Indeed, 2007 and 2011 both provided ample examples of this phenomenon.  Cain handed off the lead to one Newt Gingrich who led until January when Romney took over, then Gingrich was in the lead, then Romney, then Santorum, and eventually Romney was the nominee.  And while we are strolling down memory lane, almost exactly four years ago today, Rick Perry took a polling lead in the summer of 2011 and held it for roughly six weeks. The above is all based on the RCP averages and the graph can be seen here.

And sure, no cycle is the same as the one before, but it is still worth noting that it is not unusual for the summer/fall of the year before the voting starting to have its share of front-runners who later go on to lose in the primaries (or not even get there).   I think a lot of political junkies (such as people who would read this post) assume that a) voters are all paying attention, and b) have made up their minds about whom they prefer.  This, however, is not the case.  As I like to point out:  polling is most accurate when there are high levels of information in the target population being polled and in the context of an actual, imminent choice.    Despite what it seems like to political/news junkies (wall-to-wall coverage and tons of information), the truth is that a  lot  of people, even likely voters, are not paying all that much attention.  And the fact that voting does not start until February means a not insignificant number of people have not made up their minds yet (and/or are more than willing to change their minds between now and when it is time to actually cast a ballot). It is easier to like the loudmouthed, interesting guy when no one is actually putting a ballot in your hand.

So, when assessing whether Trump’s current numbers (23.5% in the most up-to-date RCP average) keep in mind that at times in 2011/early 2012 the Republican electorate supported Herman Cain at 26%, Rick Perry at 31.8%, Newt Gingrich at 35%, and Rick Santorum at 34.2%.  (And, again, there were times in 2007 that Giuliani had supports in the mid-40s).

All of this is to say that there are reasons to take polling at this stage with a grain of salt, especially given the fact that it is a fragmented field currently splitting support in multiple directions (a record number, I think).

Pundits may be writing political obituaries for Hillary and Jeb and talking about the pending Trumpification of the GOP, but that is because they need something to say, not because they actually have solid evidence for their positions.

Somehow we are in a weird space in which having less than a quarter of support in a crowded field makes Trump some kind of unstoppable force in the eyes of some  but Hillary at 47.8% in the RCP average and +21.5% over Sanders means she is doomed.

Analytically speaking, the Democratic race is really a two person contest between Sanders and Clinton and Sanders, despite the enthusiasm of his crowds, is ultimately a non-starter. It is difficult to see a non-dramatic* scenario in which anyone other than Clinton gets nominated (and no, Uncle Joe will not change that fact).    Likewise, there are plenty of very reasonable scenarios in which the support currently not going to Trump at the moment coalesces around a more traditional candidate (which is to say pretty much anyone in the field not named Trump, Carson, or Fiorina).  Further, the recent history of polling from this time in the process (especially with a crowded field) suggests that there are good reasons to assume that the Trump train will eventually derail.

There are other reasons to be cautious about over-interpreting the Trump phenomenon, and past polling at this stage of the process is but one.

The analogy that keeps coming to mind:  this is the preseason.   Indeed, it may just be training camp.  It is too early to pick playoff teams.


*Sure, some scandal, some shock could emerge.  But this is ever the case.  For example, I am confident that President Obama will finish his term in office, but we all know that, say, some tragic accident could befall him, but this is highly unlikely.  Any discussion of the future is really about probabilities.  I will be in class tomorrow at 9am (unless I get food poisoning tonight, or have a flat tire on the way to work, or any number of other possibilities).

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Mikey says:

    Another view: Pollsters dumbfounded by Trump

    Polling experts agree on one thing when it comes to Donald Trump’s presidential run: They’ve never seen anything like it.

    The billionaire businessman’s dominance of the Republican presidential race is forcing experienced political hands to question whether everything they know about winning the White House is wrong.

    The shocks have come in quick succession, with Trump first rocketing to the top of national polls, and then taking double-digit leads in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

    In another act of political magic, Trump managed to flip his favorability rating from negative to positive in one poll during the span of a month — a feat that Monmouth University’s Patrick Murray called “astounding.”

    “That defies any rule in presidential politics that I’ve ever seen,” Murray, the director Monmouth’s Polling Institute, told The Hill.

    Do you think it’s really that unusual, or is this just another instance of people saying “it’s different this time!” when it really isn’t so different?

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    I think it may different this time. The base is angrier on the R side and to a lessor extent on the Dside.

  3. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mikey: I would go with “B.” Beyond that, I’ve been following this race early because I’m retired now and have nothing to do until substitute teaching starts in October (that’s how long my background check will take, since I’m not asking to buy a handgun).

    The other fascination for me is how het up the interneterati are becoming about Trump and the possibility that he will win the nomination. As I have noted before, I see him as the dog chasing the bus and will be interested in seeing what this particular little doggy will do should he happen to catch it.

    What Trump’s popularity may say about the composition of the GOP is another question that may call for further examination. Why when Trump sneezes, all of the other candidates start taking Nyquil is an additional troubling issue. But I can’t control that at all; the candidates have to decide whether or not they have principles on their own.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ron Beasley: As Steven said Ron, it’s always different, but remember the old saw about ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ The anger right now is the same Tea Party anger we saw in ’10. It feels stronger, more strident, more sustained, but it is just people raging at a changing world. I would go so far as to say the 60s were worse, but you probably have surer memories of then, than I do.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: And I would add that it is real hard to sustain anger. Life just keeps getting in the way.

  6. @Mikey:

    Trump managed to flip his favorability rating from negative to positive in one poll during the span of a month

    This part is truly interesting and unusual and noteworthy.

  7. @Ron Beasley: Perhaps. But, really, what are you basing that on (aside from all the hype about Trump)?

  8. JohnMcC says:

    Everything is speculation at this point of course. And I bow respectfully to the professional and learned political science professor — very seriously, not snark at all!

    But the large number of uninformed future voters might very well be an argument that cuts the other way (or it seems so to me). Imagine a venn diagram of uninformed Repub registered & reliable voters as one circle. Then add a circle for uninformed R voters who don’t take Mr Trump seriously. I would bet that there would be a larger slice who’d name a non-Trump candidate than 75%. Because if they are truly uninformed they haven’t got the word yet that Mr Trump is the 2d coming of Ronald Reagan or whatever.

    The same two circles drawn of highly informed Repub voters would (it seems to humble ol’ me) produce a smaller slice who’d name a non-Trump favorite. Because they’ve been getting the word.

    As the uninformed pair of circles becomes more and more informed it seems a perfectly reasonable assumption that they will resemble the well-informed circles. With the result that Mr Trump’s support will actually grow.

    As an aside, Mr Romney was not a heaven-sent candidate but he never screwed up as much as Mr Jeb! has been doing. And I doubt that the remaining (Rubio, Walker, Kasich) are the men for the job of pulling an R-party together after Mr Trump has split it wide open.

    So I cautiously (and ‘umbly) will be watching the campaign with opposite expectations, Dr Taylor.
    (Feel like betting a bottle of Blanton’s on it?)

  9. Kylopod says:

    Ok, maybe “This time it really is different. But here’s why I have trouble believing that:

    1. That’s exactly what I kept hearing in earlier cycles. I’d say “But McCain got the nomination in 2008 even though the base hated him.” The person would say, “But the base is angrier than they were in 2008, and they’ve taken control of the GOP. Romney doesn’t stand a chance.”

    2. Whenever you say a certain candidate is too outlandish to become president, or even to win the party’s nomination, people tell you, “But they said the same thing about —-.” The two most frequently cited examples are Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. It’s true that both Reagan and Obama were underestimated and not taken seriously by many people when they began their quest for the presidency. But they also were a lot more conventional than they are often remembered. Yes, Reagan was an actor, but he was also the two-term governor of one of the largest states. Yes, Obama was a black man named “Barack Hussein Obama,” but he was also a sitting US Senator. And contrary to what a lot of people think, both Reagan and Obama had considerable support from their party’s establishment when they ran.

    3. When you look at the history of nomination contests, you find numerous examples of odd candidates whose campaigns never amounted to anything in the end (Herman Cain, Al Sharpton, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, and on and on and on). People tend to forget these examples, leading them to overestimate the significance of the novelty candidate of the moment.

    So, basically, if it really is different this time you’re going to have to come up with a sharper explanation for why. In a sense, it is different–no two elections are alike. And God knows Trump is in a category all his own. His high poll numbers aren’t a trivial matter–they do suggest something fundamentally wrong with the Republican electorate.

    But I haven’t seen anything to suggest he’s some unstoppable force, as I’ve been assured by so many people as of late. Yet there’s absolutely no way to talk someone out of their confidence that this will happen. You just have to…wait.

  10. Frustrated says:

    Ok, I’m really angry now.

    Once again, this is the poster known as


    Please remove me from the spam list so I may continue to post at this site under the name I’ve always used here. This has been going on for several days, and you haven’t responded to my emails or my posts under this new handle. I’ve tried everything, including clearing up my browser’s cookies, and all my posts are still sent straight to the filter. I do NOT have an option of writing in the year. Please correct this as soon as you can. It can’t be too hard?

  11. @Frustrated: I just found 3 or 4 of your messages in the Spam box–I do not know why they went there (and one of your pleas for help was there too, meaning no one saw it.

    If it keeps up, let us know (although it may take an e-mail).

  12. @Kylopod: Indeed all around.

  13. @JohnMcC:

    So I cautiously (and ‘umbly) will be watching the campaign with opposite expectations, Dr Taylor.
    (Feel like betting a bottle of Blanton’s on it?)

    Tempting 🙂

    I guess we will just have to wait and see.

  14. David in KC says:

    What will be interesting is if the GOP field remains large going into Super Tuesday. If so, that plays to Trump getting a lot of wins. I agree with your contention that as candidates fall out, their supporters are more likely to go to other candidates, but if we still have 4 or 5 early on in the primaries, Trump’s 25-30% is going to get some wins. Used to be, the field was narrowed down earlier because of money, but with billionaire club splitting their support, the odds of more candidates making it longer into the cycle has gone up. I still see it being an HRC vs. JEB! come next November, but the road map gets a lot murkier the closer we get to primary season with a dozen plus candidates on the GOP side and Trump with his current level of support.

  15. Scott F. says:

    Let’s be clear. Herman Cain did not drop out of the race in 2011, he was pushed. If you’ll recall, he was the third flavor-of-the-month in the 2011/2012 cycle after Michelle Bachmann flashed briefly following the Iowa straw poll, then Rick Perry embarrassed himself when he couldn’t count to three in a debate. Cain surged for awhile, but then several allegations of sexual harassment brought him down despite his denials.

    So, yes, it’s absolutely true that there is nothing new in a temporary front-runner at this stage of the process. However, I can think of numerous comments already made by Trump that are on par with the “transgressions” that brought down his forebears. (And a good number of the skeletons in his closets have been revealed as well.) Yet, he still stands. Trump is a different nut and he’s going to be harder to crack.

    Now, I’m confident Trump will flame out, too. But, I’m somewhat amazed by those who identify with the Republican Party and assume his derailment is inevitable. I’m amazed these people are content to passively sit and wait for Trump’s fall from grace to happen on its own while the guy continues to sully the GOP brand and drag down some of his fellow candidates in the process. Reince Priebus is an empty suit, but isn’t there any authority figure on the right who is willing and able to take Trump out before he completely soils the bed?

  16. Mikey says:

    @Scott F.:

    However, I can think of numerous comments already made by Trump that are on par with the “transgressions” that brought down his forebears. (And a good number of the skeletons in his closets have been revealed as well.) Yet, he still stands.

    This is a very good point. If someone asks me “is there really something different this time?” I would probably say “Not really…EXCEPT for…” and your point would be what’s really different.

    Trump has said things that would have crushed the previous GOP “flavors of the month” and his numbers continue to rise. And even our esteemed host has said Trump’s flip from positive to negative–even in just a single poll–is unique and noteworthy.

    Like you, I also believe Trump will eventually fall…but I am not nearly as sure as I was a couple weeks ago.

  17. Kylopod says:

    This is a test to see if my post goes through.

  18. Kylopod says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Thank you for pulling me out. One of these days a war’s going to be started over this kind of thing (and Trump will be the general).

    I’m not sure how I got caught in the filter, but I have a few ideas. A few weeks ago I intended to do a one-time parody post directed at The_Q, and I signed it under the name “Concern Trolls Getting Dumber.” The post went immediately into moderation limbo. I just sort of shrugged and moved on, but hours later I discovered somebody had rescued the post.

    A couple of days later I twice forgot to change my handle back to normal before posting from my phone, and the second time came in the course of a deeply satisfying thread in which I and some other commenters completely destroyed Jack when he posted some spurious information about Muslims. Once I posted under that name, I decided to remain with it for the rest of the thread so as not to confuse people.

    After that I was able to switch back to Kylopod without any trouble–until the thread from last week about Jimmy Carter’s illness. My first post in that thread went through fine, but the second one got sent to the spam filter–and since then, I’ve been unable to post anything. I’m glad it (hopefully) has been resolved now.

  19. @Scott F.:

    Herman Cain did not drop out of the race in 2011, he was pushed

    Why left isn’t really that important to the point I am trying to make–it is the fact that he could lead the field is what mattes (and even without the revelations that pushed him out, he wasn’t going to last).

  20. @Mikey:

    Trump has said things that would have crushed the previous GOP “flavors of the month” and his numbers continue to rise.

    To a degree I agree, but it is also true that Cain and Bachmann and others have said some pretty outlandish stuff.

  21. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I agree with you about Trump being, pretty obviously, a novelty candidate. I agree with you that history shows the polling at this point in the campaign is mostly irrelevant. I share your confidence that Trump won’t last.

    But, I think it’s pretty clear that something is happening with Trump that differentiates him from Giuiliani, Bachmann and Cain that came before him – his gravitational pull. It’s not just that he’s said some outlandish things and gotten away with it. The things he’s said have had an effect in that he’s managed to dictate the terms for almost all of the other GOP candidates. He’s either compelling candidates to take positions on the radical things he has proposed (often getting them to waffle in the process) or he’s openly mocking their policies and personalities. And for the most part, he’s dragging down more than anyone else is managing to separate themselves. Herman Cain NEVER had that effect. So far, Kasich is the only one I can see who has managed to stay out of it with Trump.

    To adopt your football analogy, sure, it’s the preseason and Trump doesn’t look like a playoff team. But, players get injured during the preseason and some teams never recover from the loss.

  22. michael reynolds says:

    @Scott F.:

    What Scott says, especially this:

    But, players get injured during the preseason and some teams never recover from the loss.

    1) Mitt Romney was never at any time as weak as Jeb, Walker and Rubio, the “establishment” candidates. He wobbled a bit, but Jeb isn’t wobbling, he’s racing down the ski jump.

    2) Herman Cain was never anything but nonsense – Republicans like to have a token black candidate whose purpose is to allow Republicans to pretend not to be racist.

    3) Newt was not a billionaire.

    4) Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada. Show me the firewall. If Trump isn’t stopped in NH, I don’t see the place where Jeb/Rubio/Walker/Kasich raises his shield wall. Then (probably) North Carolina. At that point we’re at March 1, and we have 11 contests, but Texas will be the Big Kahuna.

    I tend to think of these things in almost military terms, so I wonder where this stopping of Trump will occur? On what ground will that battle be fought, and who is going up against him? This is now a six month contest. It will likely be all over but the Koch tears by March 2.

  23. @Scott F.: The injury analogy may be apt–but I will say this: just like it is possible to over-estimate Trump’s chance, it is possible to over-estimate the weakness of some of the other candidates.

    And look, I do think that Trump represents a significant impulse within the GOP and it is linked to the Tea Party business (or so I suspect–it would be useful to know how much overlap there is between Trump supporters and Tea Part voters).

  24. Mikey says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    it would be useful to know how much overlap there is between Trump supporters and Tea Part voters

    If the callers to my local conservative morning radio show are representative, the overlap is approximately 100%.

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I have to say that an awful lot of projections are being made on the assumption that Trump continues to poll at his present level or greater. I find it highly unlikely that at some point his #s won’t drop. How Trump reacts to that inevitability will be very revealing and likely seal his fate. Trump doesn’t have what it takes to deal with that kind of real world negativity.

  26. Kylopod says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: One of the things everyone seems to forget is that Trump himself was a quasi-candidate back in 2011. While he never officially entered the race, there was a period of time in the spring of that year when he led the GOP field according to many polls. His support cratered around the time of the death of Bin Laden and the near-simultaneous release of Obama’s birth certificate. And that’s when Trump announced he wasn’t running. It suggested he doesn’t have much stamina for sticking around after people lose interest in him.

  27. Franklin says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    substitute teaching starts in October (that’s how long my background check will take, since I’m not asking to buy a handgun).


  28. Scott F. says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I don’t think the weakening (real or perceived) of Bush, Rubio or Walker matters that much in the end. The Republican field is big and there are mostly indistinguishable replacements who could be plausible nominees should any particular candidate (cough, Bush) falter.

    Where Trump matters, and how he’s different than his predecessors, is in the weakening of the GOP brand. I believe Trump has poisoned the Republican well for Hispanics and women already and the longer he stays in the race, the more soundbites and tweets there will be. Steven may be right that no one is paying attention right now, but there are tapes and screenshots.

    Say Kasich or Walker come out on top (the two most likely IMHO). If I’m Candidate Clinton, I’m already producing commercials associating the candidate with Fellow Republican Candidate Trump’s press conference treatment of Jorge Ramos and tweets about Megyn Kelly. I’m going to air them non-stop as soon as the primaries end until the candidate loudly denounces Trump personally. Walker won’t do it – he needs the base to love him – while Kasich would gladly do it and lose more base Republicans than he could hope to gain in Independents.

    If the Republican establishment lets Trump just play out, I don’t see how the party recovers from the damage he’ll do. They’ve got to deliberately take him out, in a way that turns his followers on him, if they want to survive.

  29. grumpy realist says:

    @Scott F.: I still think it remains great fun for The Donald and he’ll stay in until a) he has to pony up some actual cash, or b) he starts dropping away from being in the public’s eye (because like goldfish, they are easily distracted). I don’t think anything The Donald will say is going to pry his fanbois away from him–for them, governing is entertainment. They WILL drop away from him when he runs up against something that blustering and bullying can’t solve and shows he isn’t the magic wonder-worker they adore.

  30. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mikey: That small? I was sure that it was at least 130-140.