The Iowa Caucuses are still a couple months away, and the campaign season has been going since at least May. Accordingly, those of us who comment on politics for a living are basically required to talk about polls in the absence of actual votes being counted, even though we all know that polls conducted this far away from the election are very nearly useless in terms of predicting the actual victor.
They are, however, hugely useful in determining who gets media coverage and donor attention, and they are a semi-useful barometer in terms of a snapshot of how well a candidate is perceived to be performing on the trail, at least at the moment. So while polls should not be afforded the authority of scripture, neither should they be totally disregarded as useless.
A current look at the polls (even given his recent slide) would ordinarily indicate that Donald Trump is doing very well indeed during this primary season. However, we have to factor in things that have a known distortionary effect in early polling. One of those things – hell, the most well known thing – is celebrity, and Trump has that in spades. Even before The Apprentice, Trump was a well-known commodity in America, going all the way back to his rise to prominence in the 80s. It’s not a stretch to say that by the time he entered the race, almost no one of voting age in America did not know who Donald Trump was.
It’s easy to forget what a huge advantage that is, for people who read RedState and talk about politics on twitter all day. I cannot tell you how many people – ordinary, intelligent, reasonably tuned in people who will probably vote in one primary or the other – who did not know who, say, [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ] or [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ] even were as of this summer. At least one result of this phenomenon is that Trump raced out to a prohibitive lead in the GOP primary polling – a lead that is shrinking as more and more voters tune in and actually pay attention to the candidates.
But Trump’s celebrity, which was his greatest asset in the GOP primary polling, is also one of his greatest weaknesses, when assessing his viability as a general election candidate. See, the one politician in America who’s almost as much of a celebrity (if not more) than Trump is Hillary Clinton. So likewise, the head to head polling showing her against the other Republicans initially showed her with a huge lead – but as America has been introduced to Rubio, Cruz, et al, her lead has frittered away. For instance, the Hillary v. Rubio polling curve at RCP looks like this:
Carson v. Clinton looks like this:
Fiorina v. Clinton:
Even Jeb has experienced the same phenomenon:
There’s a pretty shocking uniformity here. As the Republican candidates have been introduced to the public as actual people instead of as “Republican I’ve barely heard of,” the American public has considered them to be worthy alternatives to Clinton.
There’s one exception to this trend – guess who it is? That’s right, it’s the one person America already knew:
Trump, as a well-known phenomenon, already experienced his burst of catching up to Hillary, in which he basically caught up to Clinton in the polls as the Trump boomlet caught on. Since then, however, while the other candidates have caught and passed Clinton, Trump has seen himself fall off relative to Clinton, a problem which is getting worse in spite of Hillary’s eroding overall public support.
The other candidates in the field can make a convincing case that the head-to-head numbers against Clinton aren’t tremendously relevant to who should get the nomination. They are still more or less at the point where they can make the pitch that as they introduce themselves to voters in the general election, their standing relative to Clinton is likely to go up, or the standing of others is likely to go down. I’m personally of the belief that Carson’s will tank relative to where it is now, and Rubio’s will rise. But all that is a matter of educated speculation.
Trump, on the other hand, is a known quantity. He’s been so ridiculously overexposed over the last 30 years – and ESPECIALLY this summer – that it’s difficult for him to say that what he really needs is more media exposure and that when he gets it, he’s likely to go up in the polls.
His greatest strength to this point (his celebrity) is also his greatest weakness, because it dulls his ability to claim that he can turn around his relatively terrible standing in the polls as compared to Hillary.