Trump Leads Hillary in a Poll? Take a Deep Breath and Don't Freak Out

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Lynden, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Tho
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Lynden, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Trump leads Hillary! Can you imagine three scarier words at this point? Trump has been out there crowing about a new Rasmussen poll that shows him leading Secretary Clinton 41-39. The poll shows 15 percent voting for someone else, and 5 percent undecided.

To be sure, we rightfully mocked Republicans who sought to "unskew" the polls when they overwhelmingly showed President Obama leading Mitt Romney heading into the 2012 elections. One poll can be wrong. A few polls can even be wrong, but the average of dozens of polls for a national election is highly, highly unlikely to be. Of the over fifty polls shown at Huffington Post's Pollster webpage that match Trump and Clinton since the beginning of March, the recent Rasmussen one is all alone in showing the Republican in the load.

Additionally, as of this writing, the five polls taken since Rasmussen's show her leading by an average of eight points. CNN has her up by 13--her largest lead in their poll since last July--and 12 points stronger than the one-point lead they showed her with in late January. But this isn't about other pollsters. It's about Rasmussen.

What do the experts say? Nate Silver found Rasmussen had a strong pro-Republican house effect in 2012--when they over estimated Romney's vote by four points--as well as in 2010. Nate Cohn of the New York Times called Rasmussen "a firm with a record of relying on dubious sampling and weighting techniques." Polling guru Sam Wang wrote: "Rasmussen's organization is a frequent subject of discussion among obsessive consumers of polls. Statistically, the bias of his data is very well-documented."

Beyond the documented Republican bias in their final pre-election polls, Rasmussen has long been accused of using early polls and other, non-election polls such as presidential approval ratings to drive the media narrative in a pro-Republican direction. An analysis of their approval/disapproval ratings for President Obama in his first year showed Rasmussen to be the furthest off the polling average for all non-internet polls (and third overall furthest from the average). Their disapproval number was more than nine points higher than the average (Rasmussen is third from the top in the graphic to the right). The approval numbers for Rasmussen likewise came in third most anti-Obama compared to the average.

Scott Rasmussen (who left the firm in 2013 over "business strategies") claimed that differences in the way he constructed his questions are a key reason his numbers came in more negative for Obama. Seems reasonable, right? Well, Pollster.com founder Mark Blumenthal noted skeptically: "make of this what you will, but three years ago, Rasmussen argued that the four category format explained a bigger "approve" percentage for President Bush." Sounds a lot like "heads I win, tails you lose."

We can also examine another comparison of Rasmussen to other pollsters on exactly that point. Rasmussen strongly diverged from the average on George W. Bush's approval rating over a 12-month period, and the divergence only got worse the lower Bush's rating fell among non-Rasmussen outfits. There's no election to actually prove the accuracy of approval ratings, so that category offers an accountability-free way to advance the preferred Republican narrative regarding the relative popularity of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Rasmussen took full advantage of that opportunity.

The narrative that Trump has no chance against Hillary Clinton--or Bernie Sanders, who runs even stronger against Trump--would be unhelpful as the now presumptive GOP nominee moves forward into the general election. People don't like to come out and support a loser.

The media also has an incentive to present the race as "close" rather than out of reach, just as they did in the 2008 Obama-McCain election. After all, who wants to watch a game that's already over? Rasmussen's poll is an outlier, but it helps both Trump and the media that has been covering him wall-to-wall--if essentially giving him tons of free publicity counts as coverage--while profiting from doing so.

Whether the polls show her winning by 10 or losing by two, Hillary Clinton needs to run her campaign the same way. She was right to hammer Trump for having served as birther-in-chief, as well as his hateful language throughout the campaign. She understands that what helped Trump win Republican primary voters will hurt him among general election voters. And good for Bernie Sanders, whose victory speech on Tuesday night in Indiana also hit Trump on birtherism, something he has done repeatedly throughout the campaign.

Defining Trump now as outside the bounds of acceptability--essentially disqualifying him in the minds of a majority of voters before they even give him a hearing--is smart politics. That's part one of Hillary's general election campaign. Part two is explaining what she will do as president. If she's able to do both of these things well, the polling lead she currently holds should only get bigger as we move toward Election Day.