A 2016 Polling Primer

By, Jordan Stephen

Here in Washington, we love polling. We love the idea that political opinions, trends and projections can all be neatly quantified and rounded to the nearest tenth.

2016 looks like the race polling was made for. Better survey methods and technology has made gathering data easier than ever, and week after week new sets are published that provide insight into the erratic race that is still very much in its pre-primary stages.

But as much as they reveal, polls can also cloud the larger story. Different numbers mean different things and cannot necessarily be used to draw the same conclusions.

Here is a quick guide to help navigate the deluge of data:

National Polling

The numbers most often used to draw the big picture coming from national polling.

Data are drawn from samples determined to best represent the country at large with relatively small margins of error.

The most important thing to remember about national polls is that they are a snapshot of how the electorate would vote in a single primary election at that particular point in time in which every candidate is an option.

Seeing as no election like this exists in the American democratic process, such national polls should be taken with a grain of salt. That is not to say they are not important, they just are not precise predictors of who will be president.

One area where they do provide accurate predictive information is when interviewees are asked to compare two candidates of opposite parties in a one-on-one match up. These scenarios are more indicative of how contenders might perform in the general election because they mimic the actual parameters.

Primary Polling

At this point in the race, primary performance is the top priority for the candidates, making state-specific polling as much, if not more, important than its national counterpart.

The results of one primary will undoubtedly have an impact on future primaries. Because of this domino effect, national polls are not particularly useful when trying to predict the results of a given primary.

Statewide primary polling also takes into account the demographic makeup of each state's electorate. For example, New Hampshire and Iowa, who have the two earliest primaries, are both more than 90 percent white and are showing relatively small gaps between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. On the other hand, South Carolina, which has a substantial black population, shows overwhelming support for Clinton Specificity is what gives these surveys their relevance, but they still only illuminate a particular snapshot in time.

The Impact Is Real

Polling is the go-to indicator for how the public is feeling about the candidates. It is the scorecard that is used to determine who is "winning" the competition far before the election is actually held.

But the importance goes beyond the abstract.

Numbers are having undeniably tangible effects on this election cycle, the most obvious of which was Fox News' decision to host two separate primary debates in August; one with those polling in the top ten and another with those polling in the bottom seven. Viewership was substantially different for the two events,
with four times as many people tuning into the higher profile contest.

CNN plans to divide the next Republican debate into two segments as well.

While this seems innocuous, these decisions seriously shape the conversation surrounding the race. They limit the platforms that low-ranking candidates can utilize and often allow loud characters to speak even louder.

Keep It in Perspective

We are 14 months away from Election Day and a lot can change in that time.

At this point in the race back in 2004, Joe Lieberman was leading the Democratic field by double digits. In 2012, Rick Perry was ahead with Republicans by nearly 10 points.

Even in 2008, Clinton was riding high above her Democratic opponents before an upstart senator from Illinois started blowing past her and eventually won the nomination and presidency.

All of this is to say that elections are fluid. Numbers collected now are not carved into stone, but rather drawn on an etch-a-sketch, and polling is not an end-all, be-all for any democratic competition.