Yes, The Trump/Clinton Polls Are Tightening. No, It Doesn’t Mean Much Of Anything

Several recent polls have shown the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tightening, but it likely means far less than the media hype makes it sound like.

Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

The General Election campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has barely begun, and we’ve already seen the media, political pundits, and political bloggers, jumping on poll results that may not actually tells us much of anything. In just the past two weeks, we’ve seen a series of state level polls from Quinnipiac that appear to show a tight race between the two candidates in states such as a Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. This week, the news has been dominated by national polls from Fox News Channel and CBS News/The New York Times that purports to show Trump with a narrow lead in one case and Clinton with a narrow, and diminished, lead in the other. In addition to these polls, there are tracking polls from Reuters, Rasmussen, and other sources that are already publishing tracking polls that purport to show the state of the race on a day to day basis even before either candidate has officially clinched their party’s nomination, and while the race in the Democratic Party is continuing and the acrimony remains as high as ever. Each time one of these polls is released, the media treats it as major “Breaking News” in the campaign even when it really doesn’t tell us much of anything, and this reaction is magnified when the poll in question that the media outlet itself released. The release of a new poll by NBC News or MSNBC, for example, is worth a day’s worth of “Breaking News” alerts even when the “news” is hours old and doesn’t tell us very much.

It’s understandable, I suppose, but as Norman Orenstein and Alan Abramowitz remind us, it pays to be circumspect when reacting to all the polls that are pouring in, especially five months before the election:

In this highly charged election, it’s no surprise that the news media see every poll like an addict sees a new fix. That is especially true of polls that show large and unexpected changes. Those polls get intense coverage and analysis, adding to their presumed validity.

The problem is that the polls that make the news are also the ones most likely to be wrong. And to folks like us, who know the polling game and can sort out real trends from normal perturbations, too many of this year’s polls, and their coverage, have been cringeworthy.

(…)

With low response rates and other issues, pollsters try to massage their data to reflect the population as a whole, weighting their samples by age, race and sex. But that makes polling far more of an art than a science, and some surveys build in distortions, having too many Democrats or Republicans, or too many or too few minorities. If polling these days is an art, there are a lot of mediocre or bad artists.

When polling aficionados see results that seem surprising or unusual, the first instinct is to look under the hood at things like demographic and partisan distributions. When cable news hosts and talking heads see these kinds of results, they exult, report and analyze ad nauseam. Caveats or cautions are rarely included.

To be sure, with a few exceptions, like the Democratic primary in Michigan, polls have done a good job of predicting the outcomes of the presidential primaries. For the general election, however, the challenge confronting the pollsters is different and in some ways greater.

The demographic composition of the American electorate is changing rapidly, becoming more racially diverse with every election cycle, and these changes are most evident among the youngest generation of voters. Because there is a deep racial and generational divide between the parties, underrepresenting younger voters and racial minorities can seriously bias poll results. This problem is likely to be exacerbated by the presence at the top of the Republican ticket of Mr. Trump, whose electoral strategy is based on appealing to older white voters.

At the same time, we have no strong sense of how to sort out likely voters from nonvoters when a relentlessly negative campaign can frighten people into voting or depress them into staying home.

Smart analysts are working to sort out distorting effects of questions and poll design. In the meantime, voters and analysts alike should beware of polls that show implausible, eye-catching results. Look for polling averages and use gold-standard surveys, like Pew. Everyone needs to be better at reading polls — to first look deeper into the quality and nature of a poll before assessing the results.

Much of this is similar to what Nate Silver had to say about the media already starting to obsess over General Election polling last week, and it’s clear that the media didn’t listen then and are unlikely to listen this time. As I noted when I wrote about Silver’s remarks, it is not surprising at all to see Trump rising in the polls right now. He’s just concluded a primary battle and, while there does appear to be some segment of the Republican electorate that continues to make clear that they won’t vote for Trump under any circumstances, the majority of the party is, predictably, rallying around Trump as their nominee and will support him in the poll if for no other reason than because he isn’t Hillary Clinton. Clinton, by contrast, is still in the middle of a primary battle with Bernie Sanders even though it’s clear that she will win enough delegates to clinch the nomination no later than June 7th and that there’s nothing Sanders can do to stop her. Polling a head-to-head race while one or both sides are still in the middle of an acrimonious primary battle makes little sense because it’s likely that at least some portion of the frontrunner’s opponents’ supporters will end up saying that they won’t support the frontrunner in the General Election. This will skew the numbers in the poll because it will make it appear as if Clinton’s support in her own party is lower than it is likely to actually be. Once the primary battle is over and tensions have cooled, we’ll have a much better idea of where the race stands. In other words, Clinton will get her post-primary bump in the polls just as Trump is presently getting his, and then each candidate will likely benefit from the coverage of their respective party conventions. None of these bumps will last very long, and it likely won’t be until Labor Day before we start getting a real picture of the state of the race. Finally, it’s worth noting that nearly all of the recent polling has been polls of Registered Voters. These polls tell us very little about what Election Day is likely to look like, and it won’t be until pollsters start rolling out polls of Likely Voters that we’ll be getting anything reliable.

So let’s try not to freak out over every new poll that comes out and every fluctuation that manifests itself, okay?

 

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Politicians, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Polls won’t really tell us much until after the conventions, which is traditionally when Americans start paying attention to the campaigns. This is such an extraordinary season they may not tell us much then.

  2. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Polls are predictive with respect to the overall popular vote, not so much so with respect to predicting the electoral vote distribution produced by the voting.

    For example, the 2012 Obama vs Romney RCP average taken from polling from October through the day before election day gave Obama a +0.7% advantage. Obama eventually won the popular vote by roughly 4%, which was within the margin of polling error.

    He, however, won the electoral vote by a 23.4% margin. Moral of the story – unless and until this polling is broken down by state and translated into likely electoral vote margins, it’s mostly meaningless. We don’t elect presidents by popular vote in this country, and we don’t allocate electoral votes proportionally.

  3. The fact that the same people who six months ago told me that the polls showing Trump in the lead didn’t actually mean anything and that he had no chance of winning the Republican nomination are now telling me that the polls showing the race tightening don’t actually mean anything and that he has no chance of winning the election are not really reducing my anxiety.

  4. Paul L. says:
  5. Hal_10000 says:

    More to the point, several pollsters predicted this. They said Trump would get a surge once he clinched the nomination. The Clinton will get a surge once she clinches hers. Then both will get a surge from the conventions. Call me in August.

  6. MBunge says:

    The only reason anyone is freaking out or making a big deal about the latest polls is that only about a fortnight ago, just about EVERYONE in politics was absolutely sure that Donald Trump would guarantee the GOP an epic loss that might not only hand Democrats the Senate but possibly the House. I’m not sure there was a single person anywhere two weeks ago talking about Trump possibly winning and if there was, they were outnumbered at least 1000 to 1 by folks talking about what Republicans simply must do to save themselves from Trumpageddon.

    Mike

  7. Pch101 says:

    Watched pots never boil. Well, they didn’t until the internet came along.

    Taken from Real Clear Politics, the results of 326 Obama v Romney polls during the 2012 election cycle:

    -Average spread: Obama +2.7%
    -Standard deviation: 3.8
    -Worst result for Obama: -6
    -Best result for Obama: +18

    31% of those polls indicated that they were tied or gave the lead to Romney.

    Moral of the story: Polling data needs to be used judiciously and with caution if it is to be useful for forecasting purposes. Citing individual polls without context is just pseudoscience at best. Some folks in the comments section need to learn that number crunching isn’t the same as random number regurgitation.

  8. MBunge says:

    @Pch101: Some folks in the comments section need to learn that number crunching isn’t the same as random number regurgitation.

    And some people need to figure out if Donald Trump is an electoral disaster of Biblical proportions or a legitimate candidate who has a real chance, even if rather small, to be the next President, because he can’t be both.

    Mike

  9. Pch101 says:

    @MBunge:

    Is that supposed to be a substitute for poor math skills?

  10. Slugger says:

    Can we have the election next week? Both Trump and HCR have been in the public eye for decades and have established personae. My decision is made. I bet almost everybody has also decided. It would take a very unlikely earthshaking event to change things. More accusations of moral defects of either candidate are just going to make all of us more disgusted by the process. Five more months of the current dialogue is just going to alienate people from politics, and our country needs people to care about involvement in civic life. End the campaign; let’s vote now.

  11. Mikey says:

    @MBunge:

    And some people need to figure out if Donald Trump is an electoral disaster of Biblical proportions or a legitimate candidate who has a real chance, even if rather small, to be the next President, because he can’t be both.

    What makes you think he can’t?

  12. An Interested Party says:

    Is he for guns or not? And Hillary is the one that’s supposedly so untrustworthy and a liar? Oh please…

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    I don’t have the heart to check out Doug’s posts explaining away Trump’s numbers in the primaries, but there’s a pathological similarity in the tone. It could be the polls are tightening because Clinton, despite her demographic edges, is having serious problems being anything other than the establishment candidate of a party.

    Incidentally, a pro-Bernie blogger was fired today for calling the head of the CAP a–cover your ears children–‘scumbag’ on twitter. If you bother, you can see a pro-Clinton guy like Jon Chait–writer of ~3,000 articles about SJW intolerance–making a joke about it. The guy fired Matt Bruenig was one of the few who called Trump from the beginning; he also has a kid on the way.

    The snapshot I get of Clinton’s people is that they really can’t handle criticism, and they’re used to getting their way in their little fiefdoms. A long time ago, I took a bunch of flack in OTB for suggesting that Jeffrey Epstein may cause a few problems. Well you know what–despite Trump being an accused rapist and probably a patron of Epstein’s Lolita ring, he’s going to be able punch at will against syphilitic Bill and his enabler for Juanita Broderick and everything else. And it’s going to cause damage, unlike when Oedipal case studies like Kenneth Starr were in charge.

    The polls are tightening and will probably stay tight because everybody who is sentient can sense how terrible Clinton is, even though she’s the choice of reason.

  14. Pch101 says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    It could be the polls are tightening because Clinton, despite her demographic edges, is having serious problems being anything other than the establishment candidate of a party.

    Or it could be as I noted above that poll numbers move around because they do. Not everyone is passionate about elections or firmly in one camp or another.

    A lot of polls didn’t make Obama’s chances look particularly good in 2012, yet he won with an electoral vote landslide.

  15. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Slugger:

    Can we have the election next week? Both Trump and HCR have been in the public eye for decades and have established personae.

    I want to see Trump’s tax returns.

    Audit is a BS excuse. IMO, there are few principle reasons IRS would be auditing: (1) what he claims on his tax returns don’t square up with the what has been reported by other entities (banks, investment houses etc), (2) his claimed deductions and adjustments are so far out-of-whack with his reported income and (3) he has previously demonstrated (to the IRS) that he and his lawyers are prone to “cheating”, but just shy of being successfully prosecuted.

    In any event, we will not even know when his “audit” is completed, because as I understand it the IRS is not legally permitted to discuss anyone’s tax situation, including whether they are being audited or not.

    Until then I have to think that this is just another con job on Trump’s part.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    I suppose it’ll be nice to have a POTUS more wrinkled and saggy than me. Obama makes me feel old, graceless and uncool.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    @MBunge: Some don’t realize mathematics is a sub-discipline of logic and not logic itself. This error is usually made by those claiming mathematics as their personal constituency and attempting to wield it in hope of stopping thought.

    Also note the very same people who repeatedly hailed polling data as evidence Clinton will defeat Trump are the same crew now claiming polls don’t mean much.

  18. wr says:

    @MBunge: “And some people need to figure out if Donald Trump is an electoral disaster of Biblical proportions or a legitimate candidate who has a real chance, even if rather small, to be the next President, because he can’t be both.”

    He can be both in favor of abolishing the minimum wage and raising it; he can say that women should be jailed for having an abortion and that they shouldn’t. Why can’t he do both of these as well?

  19. wr says:

    @Modulo Myself: ” The guy fired Matt Bruenig was one of the few who called Trump from the beginning; he also has a kid on the way.”

    Wait, someone from the Clinton campaign fired a pro-Bernie blogger for saying stupid and vile things on twitter? How does that work?

    Or do you mean that the Bernie campaign fired one of their own for making them look bad, and you choose to blame this on Hillary’s campaign?

    And this guy has a kid on the way? Too bad for his family. Do we now give every political operative who screws up a free pass because he needs money? Or just ones you agree with?

  20. wr says:

    @Modulo Myself: “despite Trump being an accused rapist and probably a patron of Epstein’s Lolita ring, he’s going to be able punch at will against syphilitic Bill and his enabler for Juanita Broderick and everything else. And it’s going to cause damage, unlike when Oedipal case studies like Kenneth Starr were in charge.”

    You know what Trump said about Hillary yesterday? That she wants to let all violent felons out of jail because she wants them to rape the grandmothers of real Americans.

    Hey, let’s panic over that, too.

    Clearly we can’t nominate Hillary, because Trump will say mean things about her.

  21. MBunge says:

    @Pch101: Is that supposed to be a substitute for poor math skills?

    No, it’s called being rational. Trump was 20 points behind Jeb Bush when he got in the GOP race, then quickly raced to the front and stayed there, defying the supremely confident opinions of people like you. He went on to make a series of political moves that were near universally considered to not just be mistakes but the sort of grossly spectacular errors that any one of them would utterly destroy his candidacy. Not only did Trump survive these supposedly devastating screw ups but many of them had a positive effect on his campaign.

    Now Trump seems sure to run against a Democrat who has not only been strongly disliked by the majority of Americans for most of the last 25 years, but a candidate with demonstrably poor political skills and absolutely no message or vision for the country, who is intimately connected to and identified with the political establishment that has entirely failed the country, and appears to still be committed to a foreign policy mindset that has forcefully harmed American interests all around the world.

    Could Trump lose? Yeah. Could he lose big? Sure. But the evidence we have now says that he could win and that even if he does lose, it’s going to be due to an awesomely negative campaign season where voters are pusuaded to hate and fear him just slightly more than the alternative.

    This is not good. Trump is not an outlier. I think he may be the last warning sign we’re going to get before this whole little experiment in self-rule passes the point of no return. And a bunch of fools drunk on childish dreams of demographic destiny are being willfully blind to what’s happening right under their noses.

    Mike

  22. Pch101 says:

    @MBunge:

    I’m talking about math and understanding the proper use of statistics.

    You’re talking about Trump being a bad guy.

    You should try to work on your reading skills, because what you’re saying has absolutely nothing to do with what I have said. Presumably, you don’t know enough statistics to comment.

  23. PJ says:

    @MBunge:

    Trump was 20 points behind Jeb Bush when he got in the GOP race, then quickly raced to the front and stayed there, defying the supremely confident opinions of people like you.

    I doubt I’m going to waste time going through older comments, because in the end Sanders, his campaign, and his supporters, all seem to change what’s important when picking the Democratic nominee quite frequently, but have you ever argued that Democrats should nominate Sanders because he has a bigger lead than Clinton when polled against Trump? A number of his supporters have argued it here, but I can’t remember if you have or not. Because those who have argued it here seemed to have been supremely confident about it, even almost a bit smug.

  24. al-Ameda says:

    @Paul L.:

    Remember when Doug predicted that Democrats would defeat Pat Roberts and keep the Senate.

    No one can be faulted for not fully understanding that Kansas was undergoing a radical Mississippi-fication procedure, a transition from Midwestern sensibility to Midwestern Mississippi.

  25. MBunge says:

    @PJ:

    Pardon me for this but…

    THIS ISN’T ABOUT BERNIE SANDERS!

    The latest Washington Post poll has Trump up 2 on Hillary, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/latest_polls/president/. That doesn’t mean he’s going to win. That doesn’t mean he’s even going to be close in November. But it is yet another piece of evidence that the guy whom virtually our entire mainstream political establishment has branded a racist, sexist, xenophobic, ignorant, irresponsible, dangerous, clownish buffoon is starting out the general election campaign neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton.

    That is a big deal. It is something about which we should be worried, even if Hillary ultimately wins. Because this is not just about Republican voters being stupider and more bigoted than fools like Jon Chait theoretically expected. There’s a lot of things going on here. Like, for example, a Democratic cult of personality that has been built around someone with no actual personality.

    Mike

  26. wr says:

    @MBunge: Yes, Mike, the fact that a lot of Republicans want to vote for a racist, sexist, douchey conman is really all Hillary’s fault.

    You keep telling yourself while your party continues its decades-long effort to destroy this nation.