In this primary season the only conclusion that makes sense is that very little has made sense. Rigorous, scientific public polls have provided a very useful road map. As fellow pollster Gary Langer has commented: although public polls, the good and the bad, are often mixed together like champagne, cola, and turpentine, where would we be without good measurements of public opinion? What started out as a Bush/Clinton inevitable matchup, has emerged as anything but. Public polls have provided insights (and, there are many) about the staying power of Donald Trump and the emergence of Bernie Sanders.
In Iowa, we are finally on the eve of when voters officially join the fray. This time four years ago, the final NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll showed Mitt Romney (+2) and Ron Paul in a statistical dead heat with Santorum surging into third place with 15%. The final Des Moines Register poll handicapped the contest the same with Romney (+2) to Ron Paul and Santorum surging into third place with 15%. These polls were excellent explainers of where the contest stood at that time and provided many additional insights into what the numbers showed under the hood.
A couple of weeks ago, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll and the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll again mirrored each other. Marist had Cruz (+4) over Trump, and the DMR had Cruz (+3) over Trump. Rubio was in third place in both polls by the slimmest of margins over Carson. On the Democratic side, Marist had Clinton (+3) over Sanders. It was Clinton (+2) over Sanders in the DMR poll.
The final NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll has Trump (+7) over Cruz, but with Rubio in third and closing. Clinton remains (+3) over Sanders. The final DMR poll has Trump (+5) over Cruz with Rubio in third.
Both polls offer an inside-the-numbers look into what might tip the scales on Monday night. But, the campaigns don’t stop once the polls do. The GOP (Trump-less) debate, the latest flap over Clinton’s emails, the final ads, and the good ol’ ground game translate into, dare I say, these polls providing a narrative not a precise prediction. They represent serious attempts to measure public opinion, inform poll-watchers, and serve as a resource for political journalists. Now, let the voters decide.
This topsy-turvy election year, perhaps more than others, will ultimately require all of us to re-think polls, politics, and the press. But, isn’t that what each election season demands? The development of the new normal about candidates and campaigns is for another day. In the meantime, safe travels to my friends in Iowa, happy caucus, and see you in New Hampshire (if you don’t get snowed in)!