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Morning Jay: A Primer on the 2012 Polls

6:00 AM, Mar 18, 2011 • By JAY COST
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The invisible phase of the presidential campaign is upon us, as prospective GOP nominees are travelling to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, meeting with donors, and of course making appearances on Sunday news programs to deny that they have any interest in the party nomination. And with all this nonsense (for which we can pin much of the blame on George McGovern!), we are also now getting a stream of election polling. Right now, it is but a stream, but soon it will turn into a raging river -- with multiple polls coming out every day telling us which Republican is up, which is down, and which has been left for dead.

Morning Jay: A Primer on the 2012 Polls

Before we get to that point, we'd better learn how to navigate those treacherous waters, and so today's Morning Jay is meant as an initial primer on the 2012 polls.

To get us started, let's flash back in time, to the Spring of 1967. The Monkees are at the top of the charts, Gilligan's Island is ending its run (spoiler alert: they don't make it home), and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller has quietly thrown his support (and his money) to Michigan governor George Romney, who has already announced the exploratory phase of a campaign to seek the GOP nomination. In May of that year, Gallup dutifully conducted a poll asking Americans whom they would support -- Romney or incumbent Lyndon Johnson. Romney had a slight edge -- 46 percent to 42 percent. 

Can you imagine how that result would have set all the tongues wagging back then if 1967 had the kind of political class that we have today? My goodness! The chitter chatter of the talking heads on the cable news would have been nonstop! As it turned out, neither Romney nor LBJ ended up as nominees (or, for that matter, contenders for the nomination), so all of that analysis would have been totally forgotten in a year.

The more prudent approach, of course, is not to be put in the kind of position where all those old "insights" have to be abandoned, which is why we need to be really careful with the early polling on 2012. It can lead us down a lot of blind alleys. The mass public at this point is paying virtually no attention to the campaign, which is mostly happening behind the scenes anyway, so polling conducted at this early stage is really not worth very much.

With that in mind, here are three basic ground rules for watching the polls over the next 6 months or so:

(1) Ignore the head-to-head GOP primary matchups. After the experience of 2008, one would think that we wouldn't have to remind the pundit class of this. Remember how wildly the polls swung that year? Here's the Democratic nomination polls over the course of 2007 and 2008:

Through all of 2007, Hillary Clinton had a very substantial lead in the national polling, so much so that MSMers reported that Obama supporters were fretting that he had been misallocating his resources. The Republican nomination polling had a similarly strange arc, with McCain falling to as low as 10% in the RCP average around Labor Day. Rudy Giuliani enjoyed a national lead all through the year. We all know how well that worked out for him.

There are two reasons these numbers were problematic last cycle, and might be once again. The first, as mentioned above, is that voters aren't paying a heck of a lot attention through most of the pre-primary season. This is a big reason why historically we have seen a phenomenon called "momentum," wherein a victory in one early contest helps a candidate win another, then another, and so on. Second, there is no national primary -- so these polls aren't predicting any actual event. What matters is how candidates perform in each contest.

(2) Be wary of any polling on candidates with low name recognition. Consider, for instance, this untenable analysis from Public Policy Polling on Tim Pawlenty's standing:

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