My favorite news commentator, it will come as no surprise to learn, is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. While there are some things about her show and her delivery (enough with the frigging 39 teases to get us to stay tuned, Rachel! We’re watching already!) that I find annoying, she is, for the most part, a really bright, articulate, insightful journalist. She has a clear viewpoint and she doesn’t make any bones about it. I don’t view her show so much as news as sharing with us her views about what the news means.
But she has been part of — perhaps even leading — the parade of otherwise competent journalists who insist on spending hours and hours of air time analyzing absolutely meaningless polls. She has a “hair on fire” approach to anything that shows the Republican Party in general and conservative Republicans specifically in a bad light. So she reports on the presidential preferential polls taking place more than a year before the election and months before any actual voting in primaries, treating them as if they were the Ultimate Truth, the Perfect Prognosticators of what the election results will look like.
She knows better and once in a while she admits as much. But still she cranks up the polling siren every night. “Donald Trump very well could be the Republican Party’s nominee” is red meat for her core followers but it’s (as she likes to say) bullpuckey and she damn well knows it. These polls are meaningless and their results, if correctly interpreted, don’t really tells us what she (and so many others) keep telling us they mean.
Just look at the latest numbers.
The most recent CBS News/New York Times poll data has Trump at 35%, which is more than double his nearest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who came in at 16%. This means, according to Rachel, that Trump’s numbers are “through the roof.”
No, it doesn’t.
Let’s take a calm, sensible look at this data.
First, notice who is being polled here. It’s “Republican Primary Voters” (see the label across the top?). Actually, digging a bit deeper you’ll find that all of these early polls focus on likely GOP primary voters. This means that the pollsters filter out anyone who won’t say they’re even likely to vote in the primary. But there’s no indication of how many such voters are being discounted, many (perhaps even most) of whom may well vote when their turn comes. So this is a smallish sample of a smallish sample.
Second, notice who’s not represented. There is no slot for “I don’t know” or “None of the above.” Which leads to the conclusion that it’s likely that option isn’t on the surveys and/or is being removed from consideration because, after all, what this poll wants to do is to test these candidates against one another.
Third, even if you ignore those two points, if 35% of all GOP voters can be said to be pro-Trump, that means 65% are not. Now, tally up the totals of the remainder of the field. The other 14 GOP candidates have a combined total of just over 55%. This means two obvious things.
First, the “not Trump” portion of the field has a clear majority even when it’s broken down in this overly simplistic and largely meaningless way.
Second, Something around 10% of the “GOP Primary Voters” aren’t represented here at all since the sum total of all the candidates is around 90%. With a margin of error of 6 points, we may be looking at an even smaller actual percentage.
So how can Rachel — or any other thoughtful observer — conclude that Trump’s candidacy is real and serious when this fairly simple digging reveals those kinds of insights? I contend that one cannot; that Rachel is simply engaging in the other half of her job (besides intelligent commentator), which is ratings flogger. If she did The Right Thing, she’d either ignore these polls or she’d present them in a broader and more appropriate context and give them much less air time.
Now, just for grins, let’s take the whole issue of polling in its broader electoral context. Even assuming that all of my observations above — and several I didn’t take time for — are wrong and that these poll results are accurate and have real meaning in some context, what is that context?
If you’re a political junkie (and I can only assume you are since you’ve already read almost 750 words of this piece), you can remember the 2012 race. During the course of that race, even once actual voters had cast actual ballots producing actual delegates, the lead for the GOP nomination changed hands a dozen or more times. And sometimes, the leaders’ margins were as high or nearly so as Trump’s are currently. The polls in 2012 were historically wrong. Over and over.
Take a look at this excellent graph over at RealClearPolitics.com. It’s interactive; drag your mouse along the graph and you can look at any point in time from February 2011 through to the concluding point in April 2012 when Mitt Romney sewed up the nomination. Notice the incredible jumble of lines that occupies the vast majority of that time until — wait for it! — late February 2012. By then, several state primaries had been held including Super Tuesday, and the chart finally sorted itself out.
Slice this another way. Assume Trump carries the Iowa caucuses in a landslide as the fake numbers so far suggest. (The caucuses aren’t held until Feb. 1, with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary eight days later.) Care to take a guess when was the last time the winner of the GOP caucuses in Iowa went on to get the party nomination? If we consider only years in which the party had multiple nominees, it was 2000 when George W. Bush carried the state with 41% of the vote. The last two rounds went to Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, neither of whom survived to the conventions.
So if Trump is indeed somehow deemed a “prohibitive favorite” to win Iowa, maybe that should be a cause for relief and rejoicing since it likely means he won’t be the party’s nominee.
Then if you’ll indulge me just one final observation, there is the two-headed question of who these likely primary voters are and what their level of political awareness is at the moment.
How many people do you know who are not political junkies like us who are even paying attention to the presidential races at the moment? I thought as much. And of those, how many are thoughtful, considerate semi-partisan observers as opposed to committed progressives and conservatives whose personal party platform is pretty well set and whose preference you could predict with near certainty? Yep. Given that we are almost 90 days out from the first actual voting (if you can call Iowa straw polls and caucuses an actual vote), the upcoming holidays, the hundreds of distracting events in the news and the completely disastrous economy facing almost everyone you and I know, it’s not surprising that most of our friends — even those who are politically motivated in season — are just not focused on the 2016 election.
Within that context, thinking only about the GOP field, who has the best name recognition by far? Donald trumps them all. (Sorry, had to get one of those in before I was done.) And he’s an absolute master of the arts of propaganda and public relations (which are often difficult to distinguish). So the real shock would be if, in these specific circumstances, anyone but Trump were leading the polls.
Now, take a deep breath, brew up a nice cup of chamomile tea, put on some of your favorite relaxation music, and chill. The real pursuit of the nomination will come soon enough.
And, Rachel, please consider giving us less meaningless polling and more discussion of the actual issues your audience worries about now and for the foreseeable future? You’re not adding much light to the discussion these days.
Thanks everyone. You can go back to putting out your hair now.