What’s up with the polls?

Isn’t Hillary Clinton supposed to run away with this against the incredibly weak general election candidate that is Donald Trump?  Well, if there were ever any doubt that partisanship is strong these days, look at all the Republican voters falling in line behind Trump.  Vox’s Andrew Prokop takes a look at the case for optimism and pessimism for Democrats.  Optimism:

The Democratic case for optimism is pretty simple: This is a weird period of the election in which only one of the two likely nominees has wrapped up the nomination. Therefore, the hope is, once Clinton clinches her own nomination (likely in early June) things will return to “normal,” and Clinton will regain her lead.

For one, polling changes in past campaigns around this time of year have tended not to “stick” all that much, according to political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien’s analysis. (This is in contrast to the first few months of the year, when polls go from essentially meaningless to reasonably related to the outcome.) The next volatile period in which polls’ predictive value has tended to surge isn’t until the convention season (which this year is in late July), since the conventions seem to concentrate and focus many voters’ attention on the choice they’re facing.

Second, there’s good reason to believe Trump has gotten a “winner’s bounce” that will end up being temporary. For instance, in 2008 John McCain clinched the Republican nomination months before Barack Obama clinched the Democratic one. And as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump points out, McCain got a bounce in the polls and very briefly passed Obama in polling averages, before soon falling behind again.

Third, there are some indications that Clinton is currently being hurt by holdout Sanders voters. This is somewhat masked in polls by the fact that many Sanders supporters identify as independents rather than Democrats, as Nate Silver has written. But Clinton’s decline in general election polls has also coincided with a precipitous increase in her “unfavorable” ratings among Sanders backers.

Clinton and Democrats think — or hope — that once the primary wraps up, tensions will subside, Sanders will endorse Clinton, and both candidates’ supporters can unite around the shared goal of stopping Donald Trump. Then, they think, sanity will be restored to the universe.

Yep, all sounds about right.  I was actually going to write a shorter version of the optimism take this weekend, but since Prokop’s already taken care of that, there you go.  Also, Seth Masket posted a chart on FB recently from 2008 and you can see how close the general election polls were when Hillary was still officially in the race against Obama and McCain faced no opposition:

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All that.  And I don’t think the pessimistic case is actually all that bad:

Indeed, Democrats’ dreams of a landslide rather than just a victory were partly based on the idea that a significant portion of Republicans would neglect to support the billionaire — recoiling at his lack of qualifications, his racism, or even his heterodoxy on a few issues important to conservatives.

Yet instead of a vibrant #NeverTrump movement, efforts to draft a third-party candidate who would appeal to conservatives have sputtered, and the past few weeks have seen many key Republican Party actors instead fall behind their likely nominee. And the party’s voters appear to be following suit. Eighty-five percent of Republicans intend to vote for Trump, according to the new Washington Post/ABC News poll.

This development is a further testament to the importance of partisan loyalties in our modern, polarized political system. It suggests that a landslide on the scale of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 win over Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon’s 1972 win over George McGovern isn’t really possible anymore — and that instead, like most recent contests, this year’s election will be a slugfest decided by a few swing states.

Democrats still feel like the swing-state map gives them an advantage, and they’re probably right. And there’s still time for Trump’s recent gains to be reversed — we’ve still got over five months until the general election.

Yet candidates and pundits who have assumed or hoped Trump’s poll strength would fade have not tended to have a very good track record in this election season so far, asJon Cohen and Mark Blumenthal of SurveyMonkey write. Right now, the polls are showing a tightening race — so we’ll see in the coming weeks whether this is an odd exception or the new normal.

Yep.  All true.  In the end, though, I think the fact that this electorate is even more non-white than four years ago and Trump’s weaknesses– especially with women and minority voters– will do him in.  It may well be close, but I still think you have to consider HRC the likely winner.  What the rallying behind even a candidate as amazingly flawed as Trump (yeah, that whole racist, sexist, brutally uninformed, demagogue thing) suggests is that Republicans made a huge mistake in nominating Trump and somebody like Rubio would have had a really, really good shot.

And, while I’m at it, Alan Abramowitz and Norm Ornstein had a nice NYT piece specifically addressing the problems with this year’s polling and focusing on the demographics:

The demographic composition of the American electorate is changing rapidly, becoming more racially diverse with every election cycle, and these changes are most evident among the youngest generation of voters. Because there is a deep racial and generational divide between the parties, underrepresenting younger voters and racial minorities can seriously bias poll results. This problem is likely to be exacerbated by the presence at the top of the Republican ticket of Mr. Trump, whose electoral strategy is based on appealing to older white voters.

At the same time, we have no strong sense of how to sort out likely voters from nonvoters when a relentlessly negative campaign can frighten people into voting or depress them into staying home.

Polling is ever-more difficult these days.  Of course, me and many others got in plenty of trouble too-easily dismissing the pro-Trump polling before the primaries.  It would be unwise to make that mistake again.  That said, when one looks at the power of partisanship and demographics in recent elections, that most definitely should not be dismissed as well.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to What’s up with the polls?

  1. rgbact says:

    I agree that strong party loyalties make blowouts far less likely these days. Even John McCain was able to get 90% of the Republican vote in the midst of a major recession and having a very moderate record. So, the 10%+ Hillary margin was always likely a fantasy.

    The last part I disagree with. The good polls I’ve seen for Trump show him doing best with young voters. Its that demographic that Hillary needs to be concerned about. Obama largely won based on huge margins with young voters. If Trump is anywhere close with them, he has a chance.

    • Steve Greene says:

      But how much of Trump doing well with young voters is the fact that many young voters are still refusing to support Hillary because of Bernie? I don’t know, but you are right that if Trump does well here, it changes the calculations.

      • rgbact says:

        Likely many. Although given they are still holding strong to Bernie even though he has no chance…..I’d say its wrong to think they’ll all jump on the Hillary train once this is over. Depends how many are pure liberals and how many are just “change” voters.

        Hillary was likely never going to match Obama’s strength with young voters though.

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