Tonight’s Republican debate brings us toward the end of the beginning

AP file photo

AP file photo

As Republicans gear up for tonight’s debate, lots of people are still pretending national polls about primary elections actually mean something. Recent history tells us this simply isn’t true. Past front-runners at the same stage of presidential election cycles have gone on to flop once ballots were counted:

None of those four ended up winning the nomination. Donald Trump’s 16.9-point lead in the latest Real Clear Politics average is right in line with the leads those other front-runners lost.

It’s worth noting here that we aren’t even comparing the “same stage” of the cycles accurately: In 2012, four states held their contests before Feb. 1, which is when the 2016 Iowa caucuses will start the process. Twelve states — nearly a quarter of them — held their primaries or caucuses before March 1 in the previous cycle; only four will do so this time around. So, past front-runners faltered even though they were closer to being before the voters than the current field is. It stands to reason change is more likely now, if only because there’s more time for it.

But more important, national primary polls aren’t predictive because we don’t vote in a national primary. At FiveThirtyEight.com, Harry Enten explains that Trump’s big lead in the national polls means only that he could wind up with anywhere from 8 percent to 64 percent of the primary vote — which is to say, his big lead in the national polls means exactly nothing.

Could Trump win? Yes. Could he end up with a smaller share of the vote than fourth-place Ron Paul won in 2012? Also yes.

Of course, you’ll see and hear a lot of people over-hyping Trump’s national poll results. They generally break down into three groups: People who support Trump; people who want to use Trump to get better ratings/clicks; people who really want a Democratic president. (Naturally, there could be some overlap among these groups.) I’m not sure any of them should really be counted on to tell us anything accurate about what’s going on.

Far more meaningful is what will happen in individual states. That’s a little harder to gauge, in part because we’re only now beginning to get a sufficient amount of polling to give us a clue how things stand even in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The fourth state in this cycle, Nevada, hasn’t had a poll that’s counted in the Real Clear Politics average in two months.

Even then, it’s important to know that not every state is created equal when it comes to determining party nominees. The early states like their time in the sun, but they don’t necessarily shape the contests that follow. Take Iowa: Since the first GOP caucuses in that state in 1976, there have been seven contested races (not counting incumbents running unopposed). Only three times has the Iowa winner gone on to win the GOP nomination (although Mitt Romney lost by just three-thousandths of a point in 2012). New Hampshire has been more predictive, with its winner taking five of seven contested races in the same time period.

At National Journal, Ron Brownstein names nine states that could be key to sorting out a contest that increasingly focuses on Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, because of the states’ combination of evangelical and college-educated voters. Those states are South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Ohio and Missouri. All but South Carolina vote between March 1 and 15 — meaning they’re even further away from casting votes than Iowa or New Hampshire.

We are approaching the time when candidates such as Cruz and Rubio will start taking more chances and making bigger bets with their campaign money and organizations. The nature of their campaigns, and those of others, will change. And some of those others will realize they aren’t going anywhere, which will change the race as well. In short, we still haven’t seen the decisions and moments that will decide the Republican nomination, and neither have the people talking to opinion pollsters.

Reader Comments 0

13 comments
FIGMO2
FIGMO2

Looking at Trump's stance at ^^^ the podium, the word "corncob" comes to mind.

Something besides "mooslims" has him irritated. 

Gmare
Gmare

Just can't bring myself to watch another so-called debate. Law and order reruns for me.

stogiefogey
stogiefogey

Too many Republican debates. I stopped watching after the second one, bet lots of other folks did also. After awhile they're just rehashing the same stuff over and over.

Eye wonder
Eye wonder

@stogiefogey

I agree but Trump v Cruz - aka The Snake from Canada versus the Talented Toupee - represents a heavyweight bout of two yuuuugely bombastic blowhards and it should be entertaining.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@Eye wonder @stogiefogey You might even say like a wrestlemania***


** This comment is considered social media and is therefore subject to redaction and or other serious consequences by homeland security. If you are of the Muslim faith comments like these could be used to bar your entry into the USA.

ByteMe
ByteMe

BTW, the first thing I'd do as imaginary head of the RNC is say that no more than 5 candidates can be on stage for the debate.  If you're not polling high enough by now, you're going to get voted off the island.

ByteMe
ByteMe

If Trump were competing against one or two candidates, he likely fails.  But against 15 candidates, he's winning because the opposition is so fragmented and can't coalesce around a single alternative.

Cruz isn't the alternative... he's "Trump Lite" without any of the perceived strength.

Rubio doesn't seem to be able to get any serious traction.  The different factions don't hate him, but they aren't thinking he's their guy at this point.

The rest are ear candy for the talk radio circuit, but their continued presence in the race just keeps the other three from having a sustainable run at the top of the leaderboard.

So it's Trump by default.

On the other hand, maybe Trump has a "Dean moment" that tanks his candidacy.  I seriously doubt it, though, just because those moments have already happened and made him stronger.

Either way, GOP loses in November and deservedly so.

quickworkbreak
quickworkbreak

You're correct that the current polls mean nothing (except what the sentiment is today). We wouldn't need to even have this conversation if we had capped campaign funding limits and a shorter election cycle like the rest of the civilized world.

ATLAquarius
ATLAquarius

None of those guys leading the national polls also lead pretty much every state poll taken at the same time....it's early yes but it's not that early

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

And some of those others will realize they aren’t going anywhere, which will change the race as well.

Not soon enough for my comfort. I can think of several who should've bailed out long ago. To them I would say...

If the sun set on your previous attempts at president, chances are it ain't gonna rise and shine on you this go'round. Huckabee...Santorum...a Paul by any other name...a Bush by any other name?  Put your campaigns to bed! 

Carson never got out of bed. Kasich? You tried and failed. Give it up. That's how we get rid of Donald Trump.

Let's win this for the gipper. 

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

Trump comes out of Mar 1st with some momentum its over.


75 days from now. Will be here in a blink

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Agreed. With effectively no primary race for President on the Democrat side, I wonder if there are enough enticing down-ballot battles to prevent a massive mobilization to cross-ballot vote in the GOP primary?

Caius
Caius

As one Republican pollster put it, "Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents.".


Yeah, it is way to early.  Let's talk in March.