Presidential polling largely useless now

Voters not paying attention, not thinking about politics

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP?

You might want to stow that notion in the same category as the presidencies-that-weren’t of Howard Dean, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Mike Huckabee.

Like the Donald, they all had leads in national polls before the actual voting started in their parties’ presidential nominating contests in recent past cycles.

The collapse of Dean in the 2004 Democratic campaign was the most memorable. Leading in polls for months, his candidacy unraveled with a weak third-place finish in the kickoff contest in Iowa, punctuated by a televised yawp on caucus night that made the feisty former governor of Vermont look unhinged.

Meteoric rises and spectacular falls are stock plotlines in the hyper-theatrical news coverage of the extended American presidential primary campaign.

Dyck, Joshua

The media use this early polling to drive perceptions so they can cover this story every day. They provide little more than grist for the mill of the 24-hour news cycle.

Polling primary races this early in the game is by and large harmless, but also by and large useless.  The reason for this is that voters are simply not paying attention at this stage, and so illusory surges, such as the one Trump currently enjoys, merely reflect the impact of news coverage and name recognition, and not well-informed preferences.

That is why, at the Center for Public Opinion at UMass Lowell, we aren’t doing any presidential primary polling now and won’t be any time soon.

As a research center at a public university, we are in the business of polling when we believe the results will provide useful information to the public about which candidates are viable, who may be winning, and how competitive an election is. There isn’t enough public value in primary polling results at this point to assess any of those variables.

As pollsters, we need to differentiate between asking questions that get at actual beliefs and preferences of those we survey, and questions that produce knee-jerk, get-me-off-this-phone-call responses. Early primary polling is all about knee-jerks, not preferences.

Understanding why this is requires some understanding of how voters think. The truth is that most people are not thinking about politics most of the time.  Many may view it as their civic duty to pay attention (and some of the wonkiest of us even enjoy it at times), but for most voters, the political process and political debates are off-putting; something to be avoided at all costs, especially this early in the process.

Party identification, usually formed by the time we become adults, is an important short-cut, a marker of our political beliefs and used to evaluate candidates.

That helps in evaluating head-to-head general election matchups between hypothetical party nominees. But this default mechanism is less helpful in establishing a preference in a crowded partisan primary field before the biographies and policy prescriptions of candidates are fully understood.

The average Republican is likely to find most of the Republican candidates generally acceptable; likewise for Democrats. Early impressions can and do change with a puff of wind in the political atmosphere.

So, when a pollster calls in August, more than a year before the general election of 2016, a respondent might be predisposed to choose a candidate she or he recently heard about. In this instance, the voter’s most trusted sidekick (party identification) isn’t much use in figuring out who to support in a crowded party primary field.

And so now Donald Trump leads several national and statewide polls of likely Republican primary voters.  Yet his institutional support among party insiders is virtually non-existent, he has not raised any money beyond his personal fortune, and he recently picked a fight with Fox News, a news organization that most Republicans express a great deal of trust and confidence in.

Early poll numbers are fragile because they don’t actually reflect thoughtful preferences. People are just answering questions right now.  And as circumstances change, the answers will change, too.

Meet the Author
Just ask Howard Dean.

Joshua J. Dyck is the co-director of the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion.