Forget the hype, polls about the 2016 presidential race are basically useless right now.
Over at The Upshot political scientist Brendan Nyhan had fun a few days ago taking apart a favorite subject matter of bored political reporters: ridiculous early political polls.
Nyhan was referring a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that showed Hillary Clinton with a major double-digit lead over potential Republican opponents Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and guy-whose-not-going-to-be-the-nominee Rand Paul, but the critique can be applied to any supper early poll.
Simply put lots of voters aren’t paying attention right now and are instead just responding to things like name recognition when they respond to these sorts of polls. Or as Nyhan puts it:
Why are polls so inaccurate for so long? The reality is that ordinary people pay very little attention to politics most of the time. Their responses to early survey questions are unconsidered and reflect factors like name recognition. Over time, however, the campaign eventually brings the state of the country into focus, drawing people’s voting intentions into line with their partisanship and their perceptions of the state of the economy. As a result, the polls tend to converge toward the result predicted by forecasting models based on the fundamentals…
…For all of these reasons, Mrs. Clinton’s giant lead wouldn’t hold up in an actual election contest. Her public standing has been artificially inflated by her tenure as secretary of state, which largely removed her from the partisan fray. A campaign would remind many Americans why they used to have unfavorable views of her. The winner of the Republican nomination will gain in stature and consolidate the support of the party in the first part of next year—the reason that the performance of G.O.P. candidates against Mrs. Clinton right now is not especially instructive in analyzing their prospective appeal.
That’s exactly right.
Of course this doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. The “Invisible Primary” part of the 2016 cycle is well underway. Indeed at least one potential (but undeclared) Republican candidate, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, has already dropped out. So if you want to know about Hillary’s chances just pay attention to President Obama’s approval ratings (underwater but improving) and how the economy does according to a broad base of measures between now and the summer of 2016.
If Obama is popular and the economy is growing then it will be likely we’ll see our first female president in 2017. If Obama is unpopular and the economy slides back into recession, well then get ready for a changing of the guard in Washington.
Following these trends might not be as fun as parsing polls, but they do have the upside of actually giving you an idea about what to expect in 2016.
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