Terror Grips Presidential Poll Watcher


Like most political junkies, I’ve been watching polling data in the presidential campaign like a hawk for a year or more. As Donald Trump and Ben Carson took the lead this summer, my enjoyment of the process began to erode. The one thing keeping me from utter despair is the Washington Post’s Twitter account @PastFrontrunner.

It posts every day where polls measured the national and state presidential primary campaigns in 2004, 2008, and 2012. As the saying goes, it’s still early, and that kind of data can put into perspective just how early it is. But we’re just over 2 months away from Iowa and New Hampshire voting, and things haven’t changed much.

However, on the national polls, @PastFrontrunner suggests they’re still way off. Trump currently leads the RealClearPolitics average, Carson is within the margin of error to tie, and Rubio and Cruz are coming up the rear. So where were we in past cycles nationally?

As we know, neither Howard Dean nor Wesley Clark got the Democratic nomination in 2004; John Kerry did. And in 2008, neither Hillary Clinton nor Rudy Giuliani won their party’s nomination; Obama and McCain did. But in 2012, Romney had at this point just taken over the lead for the Republican nomination. He would lose that lead to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum a few times over the next few months, but eventually go on to win the nomination.

So nationally we can see that history suggests we don’t yet know who will win based on even our current strong frontrunners. But the state polls are much more foreboding.

Where was New Hampshire in previous elections? Much closer to its final vote.

In 2008, Romney eventually lost NH to McCain, who went on to win the nomination. Clinton did win NH that year, but eventually lost nationally. In 2012, Romney won NH and the nomination. So if history is any guide here, Trump and Carson could very well win the first official primary state. But that doesn’t mean they’ll win the nomination.

The first caucus state returns a little more hope to the map.

Neither Romney, Clinton, nor Cain ever won Iowa. Huckabee and Obama won in 2008, and Santorum in 2012, but only one of the three went on to win his nomination (and then the general election).

Ironically, it’s Santorum’s surprise victory in Iowa that is keeping me sane in the current cycle (I was the opposite that year). No poll ever had Santorum leading the state in 2012. In fact, the final RCP average before the caucuses had Romney leading by 1.3%. Iowa’s in-person caucus system is historically much harder to gauge with polls than standard primary voting states. Someone who’s never led polls there could come from behind and surprise everyone. Or one of the people who shares nearly half the current public support could.

Sometimes state polls are right, at least for the overall result, if not the exact degree. But sometimes they’re very, very wrong. And national polls are almost always very, very wrong this far out. So as grim as it looks out there for the half of the party that’s in the fetal-position, rocking back and forth under the desk mortified of a Trump (or Carson) victory, It’s Still Early!™ Anything could happen. Breathe.

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