“Mike Huckabee leading in Iowa!” “Bernie Sanders challenging strongly in New Hampshire!” “Donald Trump surges nationwide!” Do you read these headlines and gulp? Well, here is a calming perspective. These polls don’t mean what you might think.
The way to understand political polls at this point in the election cycle is not as avowals of backing but as applause for shared beliefs. When a voter says that he supports Ted Cruz or Ben Carson, he is saying in effect, “Right on! Give it to those SOBs!” He isn’t necessarily or even likely saying that he actually sees his man as President of the United States.
The transition to focusing support on a really plausible President won’t happen until well into the primary season next year. Until then we will continue to see sudden love affairs with the likes of Donald Trump, who has about the same chance of being Commander-in-Chief as you do. And the media will exaggerate this phenomenon by rarely placing poll standings in context or providing measures of their precision.
However there is one aspect of these emotional polls that should cause some concern. Unless they calm down in time for the coming debates between primary candidates they may have an effect far beyond their true significance. This only applies to Republicans who have an extraordinarily large field of plausible contenders. In a probably vain attempt to promote informative and useful debates, the sponsors (Fox News and CNN) of the first debates have both elected to use national poll standings as qualifiers for a place on the podium. More than ten or so debaters is viewed as unmanageable, and rightly so. CNN will run a second debate for those lower down the polls but voters will likely view that as entertainment rather than as a political event of significance.
The situation is very fluid at present, but if the Fox debate were held today, Donald Trump would be on the stage and such heavyweights as Rick Santorum, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham would be missing. There isn’t much time for good sense to prevail, either by voters or the debate sponsors. The Fox debate is on August 6 and the CNN debate is on September 16. There will be later debates, but the initial ones may have a major impact on donor support and hence on candidate viability.