In previous columns I have mentioned the unfortunate tendency of many Americans to treat politics like a spectator sport. A perfect example of this type of confusion is all of the fascination (or hyperventilation) about the Trump bump, Donald Trump’s recent ascendency in the polls. I’m not just talking about the fact that Trump is more of a TV personality than a political leader. I’m talking about how utterly unimportant the polls are at this point in the campaign. We are nearly eight months from the Super Tuesday primaries and we are nearly sixteen months from the 2016 election.
We were much further into the 2012 election cycle than we are today when Newt Gingrich had a more than twenty point lead on the next closest candidate. At this point in the 2008 race Rudy Giuliani had a twelve point lead over second place Fred Thompson. The Democrat front runners at this point in the 2004 race were Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt. When a political party does not have an “heir apparent” candidate (George HW Bush, Al Gore, etc) the polls this early in the process are proven to be pretty useless as indicators of who will win the nomination.
Many people know this, of course, but they still follow the early polls with rapt attention for signs that an “upset” is brewing or that the presumed front runner is “in trouble.” This, again, comes from the mistake of conflating political campaigns with a spectator sporting event. People assume that an early lead for Trump in the polls is like an early lead for an underdog in a playoff game. Sure, they say, it’s always possible that the underdog will fall apart or that the favored “team” will get it in gear but, they say, every minute that the underdog stays in the lead makes the “upset” that much more possible.
The analogy, however, is bogus. Points scored early in a sporting event are worth the same (when the final score is tallied) as points scored in the middle of the game. Being ahead in the polls right now, however, is not worth anything at all when the primary votes are being tallied and a nominee is being selected. The Trump bump is not analogous to an early lead in a playoff game. If a sports analogy must be made you could say that Trump is wowing the fans by draining three-point-shots in an open gym while the real contenders are weight training. The candidates who might actually be the nominee are not grabbing headlines and stirring the pot. They are out laying groundwork in the early primary states and setting up campaign staffs because that is what you do at this point in the process if you’re in the race to win something besides the advancement of your brand.
The Trump bump does not prove that the GOP is racist, or that the base is stupid, or that Americans deserve Hillary. It doesn’t prove that the establishment is in trouble, or that the people want straight talk, or that immigration will be a central issue of the 2016 race. When we look back at this next spring it is going to be obvious that Donald Trump’s recent rise in the polls showed (yet again) only just how useless these early polls are.