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How to Read Polls Without Terror
The numbers are bad, but at least they’re not predictive.
Experts will advise you never to eat meat with cream sauce at a buffet; always to lock your car even when just dashing into the 7-Eleven for two minutes; and never to read national polls in the year before an election.
I obey only the first two advisories, and admittedly, reading polls about the 2024 presidential election takes a toll on my mental health. That said, I think there are coping mechanisms available for those who do succumb.
Two recent polls illustrate the dangers of consuming too much public opinion at this stage. NBC’s poll shows that Trump has widened his lead over the field in the Republican primary contest since his latest indictment, with 51 percent now saying he’s their preferred candidate for the nomination, up from 46 percent in April. That puts him 29 points ahead of Ron DeSantis, his nearest challenger, whose support dropped from 31 percent in April to 22 percent in June.
Asked about Trump’s federal indictment, 63 percent say the charges give them “no real concerns at all” along with 14 percent who report only “minor concerns.” That could be interpreted as 77 percent of Republicans saying they’re undisturbed by a former and would-be president who endangers lives and national security in order to settle scores and salve his pathetically sensitive ego.
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But that isn’t even the most disturbing result from the poll. That honor belongs to the question about what disturbs voters most. The question: “Does this issue give you major concerns, moderate concerns, minor concerns, or no real concerns?” Option 1: “Donald Trump not having the necessary mental or physical health to be president.” Option 2: The same, but about Biden. Fifty-five percent of respondents had either major or moderate concerns about Trump’s medical fitness; 68 percent had concerns about Biden’s.
Two more options: “Joe Biden being re-elected and serving another four years as president” and “Donald Trump being elected again and serving another four years as president.” Okay, inhale. Fifty-five percent had major or moderate concerns about Trump, but once again, Biden had him beat with 60 percent registering concerns.
Good God, what is wrong with people? It’s nearly enough to make one suspect that our democracy has devolved into a kakistocracy. Donald Trump attempted a coup, endangered national security, exacerbated internal divisions, mishandled a health emergency causing thousands of needless deaths, made us a global laughing stock (oh yes, the very thing he always accused other presidents of doing he did to an unprecedented degree), endorsed QAnon, dined with Nazis, and is running on summary executions and “terminating the Constitution.” So, sure, kind of a toss-up between that and a normal president who has some policies we don’t like but who follows the law (with one exception that is being challenged in the courts) and appoints responsible adults to important posts.
Another poll from Morning Consult showed, for the first time since tracking began in December 2022, that in a head-to-head contest between Trump and Biden, Trump would win by three points.
So, aside from vodka or hemlock, what is the secret to assimilating this information?
One thing I keep in mind is that polls this far ahead don’t mean much. In May 2015, Scott Walker was the clear leader in Iowa polling. He dropped out of the race before a single vote was cast. In June 2015, Jeb Bush had 19 percent to Trump’s 12. There wasn’t much of a Democratic contest in 2016 or 2012, but in the 2008 cycle there was a prolonged duel between Obama and Clinton. In June of 2007, Clinton led Obama 33 percent to 21 percent. Lesson: Voters are not that focused on presidential races this far out.
Another thing to bear in mind is that nominating contests are not conducted on a nationwide basis, as these polls are. They are state-by-state contests wherein the results from one contest influence the outcomes of later races. Momentum is real. Bandwagon effects are strong. If Trump wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, the race for the nomination will probably be over. But if someone else wins one or both, or one non-Trump candidate wins Iowa and another takes New Hampshire, then it’s a jump ball. Trump’s failure to win those early contests would be the biggest media story in the world, and fawning profiles of the winner or winners will follow (as will donor money). There is some dissatisfaction with Trump in Iowa, and Tim Scott, for example, who’s a good match for the religious primary electorate, has lately been enjoying a small but possibly notable polling surge.
Though Trump remains strong among Republican primary voters, there are definite cracks. The same NBC poll reports that 29 percent of Republican registered voters say the GOP needs a new leader “with better personal behavior and a new approach” and an additional 21 percent say “Donald Trump was a good president but it’s time to consider other leaders.” So a total of 50 percent are either frankly opposed to Trump or like him but want to move on. The party is thus divided roughly 50/50 on whether he ought to be the nominee. Of course, with the winner-take-most system the GOP employs, Trump could have more than enough support to ensure his nomination.
Which brings us to the question of the indictments. The polling shows a rally-‘round-Trump effect, but because many Republican voters get their news from talk radio and Fox News and other biased outlets, it’s safe to assume that most haven’t yet assimilated what Trump is accused of in the classified documents case. They’ve heard a whole lot of whataboutism: “Hillary Clinton did the same thing. Joe Biden did the same thing and no one prosecuted him!”
But this time, there are voices from within the GOP information bubble who are telling the truth. Neither Clinton nor Biden did remotely the same thing. Until now, Trump has been buttressed by a solid wall of falsehoods erected and maintained by virtually all elected Republicans and Right World’s propaganda outlets. That has changed. Chris Christie is firing daily broadsides. Asa Hutchinson and Will Hurd, too. And even on Fox News, viewers have been exposed to former Trump stalwarts Bill Barr, Trey Gowdy, Karl Rove, and Jonathan Turley saying the indictment is strong and Trump’s behavior is inexcusable. Elected Republicans like Don Bacon and even Freedom Caucus member Ken Buck have said they won’t support a convicted felon for president. I know, I know, it’s such a low bar, but considering where we’ve been, it marks a significant change.
There will be testimony from Trump aides and allies in the Mar-A-Lago documents case that will be hard to dismiss as the product of Democratic machinations. And the indictments may keep coming. A Washington Post story examining grand jury subpoenas suggests that Jack Smith is actively considering charges for the 2020 fake electors scheme and a possible fraud case based on “Stop the Steal” fundraising. Indictments in the Fulton County, Georgia case are expected in two months. As the evidence in all of these cases mounts, and particularly with some GOP voices penetrating the disinformation bubble, some Republicans who are currently telling pollsters they’re fine with Trump’s indictment may go wobbly.
And even if none of this is sufficient to prevent Trump from being nominated, it is very likely to be enough to cause a critical portion of Republican voters either to stay home or to vote for the Democrat in 2024. We’ve seen this pattern in recent races. In 2022, Republican voters in key races gave less support to MAGA candidates than to traditional Republicans. In Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Arizona, Republicans split their votes, denying victories to Doug Mastriano, Doug Bolduc, Hershel Walker, and Kari Lake. In each of those crucial swing states, if Republican voters had delivered the percentage of votes to those candidates that they did to other Republicans on the ballot, the election-denying MAGA candidates would have won.
It’s going to be a stressful 18 months, but there are good reasons not to despair for the future of the country over today’s polls.