Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ignore Those Polls!

Daniel Larison is spooked by polls that show implausible nominees Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich all picking up some support:
At what point are we going to start acknowledging that the national and local polls are telling us that it is Pawlenty and Huntsman that are the clearly marginal candidates, and Paul, Bachmann, Cain, and even the ridiculous Gingrich are the competitive ones?
Answer? At basically the same point we start taking seriously those polls from a few weeks ago that show Republicans all want to nominate Donald Trump, or the ones from last week showing that Rudy Giuliani is about to capture the nomination. In other words, we don't. The polls just don't tell us very much right now.

They may, to be sure, be telling us something, but only if we interpret them very, very carefully. For example, there's almost certainly something to Sarah Palin's relatively high negative rating among Republicans. But for the most part, remember that early presidential polling is all about asking people who don't have any opinions yet about a question they'll never have to answer.

What do these poll spikes for fringe candidates mean? Steve Kornacki had a very nice item yesterday talking about why someone such as Cain can get a bit of momentum now, compared to Morry Taylor in 1996 (don't remember him? Then you're not as much of a political junkie as you think you are). I think my brother talks about "product lines" that Fox News and others create and sell, and it makes sense in those terms. Fox has 24 hours to fill every day; they don't want to bore their customers with twenty months of Romney vs. Pawlenty. So if they have a month of Trump, a month of Newt, and a month of Cain...well, that's going to produce short-term polling spikes, but it's all going to be forgotten by January 2012.

To answer Larison a bit more directly: right now, I'd almost completely ignore the polls. I'd pay attention to high-profile endorsements, fundraising success, and any other signs of party support -- success in signing up prominent staffers, for example. I'd also pay a lot of attention to anti-endorsements: any strong statements by important GOP leaders that a candidate or a candidate's issue positions are unacceptable (or just the fact of unacceptable issue positions; that's why Hunstman isn't, in my view, a plausible nominee). After the Ames straw poll later this summer, I'd start gradually paying a bit of attention to Iowa polling, and once we're within a month of the caucuses I'd pay a lot of attention to that, and some attention to New Hampshire polling, while still keeping a solid eye on endorsements and other indications of party support.


  1. I'm no junkie, but how could anyone forget Morry "Move over Bob Dornan - there's a tire magnate in town" Taylor?

  2. I'm with you for the most part, BUT lately I've been thinking a lot about what happened in my state, Washington, in 1996. That's when the Religious Right, Constitution and Patriot elements of the Republican coalition (finally, after a decade of effort and advance) took over the state party and nominated Ellen Craswell, a candidate who couldn't attract more than 30% of the vote statewide, but who was extremely popular with "the base." For the party, Caswell's candidacy was a disaster that drove many independents and moderate Republicans to the Democrats, or, most significantly, to the Libertarian Party -- which for the first time was able to qualify as a major party in this state. The Republicans haven't won a statewide election since, and, because of the stonger Libertarian presence, statewide elections have been almost too close to count. (After her defeat, Caswell and her most devoted followers joined a branch of The Constitution Party).

    I've always thought that the Republican establishment, that is, the major funders, would never let this happen on the national level. But, I think candidates like Palin and Bachman do seriously think they may, with the Tea Party and far right and religious media, have a way to the nomination that goes around the establishment. (I'm only suggesting that they may think this, not that it is true.)

    While I think it unlikely that such a candidate could get the nomination, I wonder, if someone like Palin or Bachman were to get the nomination, if they wouldn't, because of the advantageous small, rural states enjoy on the national level, have a somewhat better chance at success than Craswell did in Washington state? A state where the "East of the Mountains" conservative, rural districts where such candidates dominate are always at a disadvantage in statewide elections compared to the much more populous, and more moderate to liberal, "West of the Mountains."

  3. You hit the nail by pointing out that it's all going to be forgotten by 2012. It's way too early.

  4. I think if Huckabee would have remained in the race, the polls showing either him or Romney in front would have been right: the other candidates would eventually have to bow out because they were too unpopular, and then, depending on the narrative, one of the two would win. If it was all about the economy, it would be Romney, but if it was about conservative values, Huckabee.

    Huckabee leaving changed the situation, and now the situation basically is Romney vs the base. And so far, the base has established its narrative of full confrontation, and if that doesn't change well before Iowa, there will be a repeat of 2008, with all major candidates in the end either being very conservative or pretending to be.

    (And it scares me that the eventually winner could be one of those conservatives, but is seen as moderate, just because they're not completely out there like Palin)


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