What Does Trump's Lead in the Polls Mean?

According to a recent poll by CNN, Trump leads Ben Carson in Iowa by a 22-14 margin.  He also leads in Michigan according to a Fox News poll 20-12 over Jeb Bush and 18-13 over Bush in New Hampshire.  The Realclearpolitics average of polls puts Trump at 22.5% with Jeb Bush being a second best at 11.8%.  If all this really meant anything, Donald Trump is your nominee in 2016.  It is why in virtually every statement he notes that he is leading in the polls as if that really means something.  He could, in fact, be in with some dubious company.

In August 2003, Joe Lieberman was the choice of Democrats according to the polls.  In an open 2007 race, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani led their respective parties in the polls.  Last time around, although Mitt Romney led for part of August 2011 in the polls, it was Rick Perry who surpassed him near the end of the month.  Perhaps the 2000 GOP primary was most like 2016 as there were 13 candidates in the mix.  And in August 1999, it was McCain who led in the polls.

These poll numbers reflect “voter” preferences now some five months from the Iowa caucuses.  In politics, five months can be a lifetime.  There are still at least four debates to endure before we reach the Iowa caucuses.  A lot can change between now and then.  Second, that RCP average which is derived from various polls assumes a national nature to the nomination process.  It would make greater sense and hold greater weight if we held a big national, one day primary but that is not how it works.

This also assumes that come the Iowa caucuses there will be 17 candidates, Trump being one of the 17.  Let’s just assume that come Iowa, the four lowest candidates currently drop out- Graham, Jindal, Santorum and Perry.  That is at least 4.8 percentage points to be distributed elsewhere.  Not all of that support will flow to Trump.

Perhaps the biggest consideration is the actual nomination process.  Whether one wins a state or not is irrelevant in many instances since most states do not use a winner-take-all delegate format.  Conversely, a state like Florida rich in delegates adopted a winner-take-all format thus upping the stakes in that state.  Another perfect example is Nevada in 2008 when Hillary Clinton won the state’s popular vote but lost the state’s delegate count because Obama won the more populous areas.

Also, one should consider that there is a big difference among those who respond to polls.  Many may not go to the polls on primary day, nor will they attend and vote in a caucus.  Respondents to polls are also likely reacting to two other important factors- who is getting the media attention and name recognition.  Clearly, Trump has the name recognition and he is getting the bulk of the media’s attention.  Since announcing his candidacy, a day has not gone by without Trump being mentioned in the media.  Yet, how many times have you heard the name Fiorina let alone Pataki?

Further, these same polls of likely, registered or interested voters reveal another fact: seven of the 17 candidates have a positive favorability rating.  Donald Trump is NOT one of the seven.  In fact, he has one of the worst favorability ratings among the 17 at only 30% with 60% viewing him unfavorably.  Being favorable will not allow you to stand out in the near term, but it pays dividends over time. The nomination is a time-consuming effort.  Trump sitting before an interviewer and saying, “I’m a nice guy.  People who know me think I’m nice…” is one thing but it is at odds with the perception of those answering the pollsters.

We can also flip that 22.8% national poll number and say with equal confidence that 77.2% of respondents do not like Trump, nor would they vote for him.  That is a lot of people/voters for Trump’s adversaries to attract.  Given the fact that his unfavorable rating has remained fairly constant even though he has risen in the polls it does not bode well for Trump when push comes to shove.

Much has been made of the fact that Trump is tapping into a anger and frustration among a certain segment of the population.  But, what happens to Trump’s poll standings should one of the more palatable candidates tap into that same anger, frustration and energy?  One can almost guess that it would nosedive as fast as it ascended.

Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight (a really good site even if it is associated with the New York Times) notes that endorsements are a better predictor of the eventual nominee.  Using a system he devised (10 points for a Governor’s endorsement, 5 for a Senator and 1 for a Congressman), the leader on the Republican side is a Jeb Bush with 31 points followed by Chris Christie with 25 points.  There is statistical evidence which shows that endorsement success translates into primary and caucus success.  However, even this is rife with the same problems as polls.  Endorsements and their effects on voting outcomes make sense insofar as they pertain to particular states.  For example, Bush has the endorsement of Hatch, a Utah Senator.  It is highly doubtful the endorsement of a Utah Senator will have any effect on the voters of Florida in a primary.  If we subtract out home state endorsements, Bush drops to 19 points and Christie would be in the lead with 21 points.  As for Trump, he has zero endorsements which puts him in company with George Pataki, Jim Gilmore, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson.  They all may be good people in their own ways, but none of them is going to be the party’s candidate.

Finally, Trump is running what can best be described as a contrarian campaign.  He is not the first to run against the party establishment for either party.  Eugene McCarthy did it in 1968.  More recently, Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich did it also and look where they ended up.  In effect, Trump is the Bernie Sanders on the Republican side tapping into an alleged populism that, electorally speaking, is not really that popular.  Like Sanders, Trump may have peaked and he may remain high through the early stages of the primaries and caucuses.  They may even pick off a few states or run a close second.  What makes Trump unique is that as one gets closer to the prize, the more expensive the race becomes as some try to hang in and others try to deliver the death blow.  If a lower tier candidate fails early, no one will finance their campaign.  Trump does not need the money of donors.  Unlike McCarthy, Buchanan or Gingrich, he can self-finance a campaign and hang in longer.

There are way too many variables at play right now to assume that because Trump leads in polls he will be a force to be reckoned with.  Candidates are chosen by delegates, not polls.  Polls themselves are rife with pitfalls.  By time Iowa and New Hampshire roll around, there is likely to be less than 17 candidates in the mix.  Trump can trumpet his standings in the polls as he inevitably does at every chance, but right now they are meaningless and fodder for the political pundit talking heads.

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