Pundits and reporters are going crazy over a new Monmouth University poll that shows Donald Trump towering over his opponents for the Republican presidential nomination with 41 percent support nationally. CNN and other outlets announced Trump’s lead in the poll without any reservation on Monday, even as the poll’s director offered caveats on social media.
The number is a new high for the business mogul in a live-interviewer national poll, but there is still plenty of reason to be skeptical of the findings. Primary polls are usually not predictive of the election until right before the primaries -- and in this case, there is no national primary. Plus, this poll doesn’t narrow the results to likely voters.
The Monmouth poll Republican numbers are based on 385 registered voters “who identify themselves as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party.” Of that group, 250 say they are Republicans, and 135 say they “lean” toward the Republican Party -- meaning they aren’t necessarily committed to the party. There is no way of knowing whether any of these 385 people will vote in their state primary election.
As Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University poll, said on Twitter, there are substantial differences between what these registered voters say and what likely voters in state-level polls are saying. In Monmouth’s last poll of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had the lead with 24 percent support, compared to Trump’s 19 percent.
Iowa’s numbers could be more meaningful than the national numbers because there is a caucus happening in the state on Feb. 1. There is not a national primary election happening any time. Primaries occur state-by-state, so while national primary polls can provide a look at general attitudes across the nation, they tell us basically nothing about how the actual state-level primaries will play out. Even as he released the results of his organization’s national poll, Murray tweeted to that effect.
There’s also a big discrepancy in support for the Republican candidates across polls. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released just days prior to Monmouth’s, shows Trump in the lead, but with 27 percent. That is only a 5-point lead over Cruz, compared to Trump’s gigantic 27-point lead in the Monmouth poll.
The NBC/WSJ poll, however, is reporting opinions among 400 likely Republican voters, meaning those who say they will vote in a primary. Trump’s support seems to be lower among those who say they will vote when compared to Monmouth’s result among all registered Republicans and Republican-leaners.
It’s unclear what will happen when people begin to vote in state-level primaries -- it’s too early to use primary polls to predict the outcome. It’s likely that Monmouth’s poll result describes more about the mood of the country and Trump’s near-universal name recognition than what will happen in the elections.
Trump clearly has considerable support among Republicans. The question is whether that will translate into votes.
Janie Velencia contributed reporting.