Election 2016: Don’t Panic About the Polls…..Yet

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With the republican primary wrapped up and the democratic primary about to be over in a couple of weeks, we are entering the purgatory period between the declaration of presumptive nominees and the national conventions later in the summer. And given our media’s insatiable need to blow a narrative out of proportion, something has to fill the void.

Right on cue, the media has been more than happy to oblige. You cannot go more than 30 seconds of watching cable news without seeing pundits and party hacks hyperventilating, in either excitement or panic, about a few recent polls showing Donald Trump either close, or in some cases ahead, of Hillary Clinton.

Welcome to the season of polling insanity. Where even a shift of a tenth of a point is hyped up as signs of momentum for one candidate, and collapse for the other.

Donald Trump has erased Clinton’s advantage since he became the presumptive nominee after winning Indiana on May 3. On that day, Clinton’s average lead was six points.

2016 Polling Trump Clinch

Today, at least according to RealClearPolitics, Trump’s average lead is two-tenths of one percent. Though RealClearPolitics only counts the polls released over the last week.

If you count the two other polls released since Trump clinched the nomination, Clinton still leads by an average of 2.4%, as shown below.

2016 Polling

Whichever way you slice it, this race got close fast. So, is there reason for Democrats to panic over these polls? The answer is not yet. And there are a couple of reasons for this.

The first reason is nobody should be surprised by this. I alluded to this a few weeks ago, but many Democrats are way too cocky about the Clinton/Trump match up. Many were, and still are, convinced she will win in a landslide of epic proportions.

It was naive then, and it is naive now. Donald Trump is going to get at least 45% of the vote in November. If you were of the mindset that he would not, you haven’t been paying attention to politics lately.

John McCain, the guy who picked Sarah Palin to be one heartbeat away from the presidency, received 46% of the vote in the Obama wave of 2008. The last time a losing candidate failed to garner at least 45% of the vote in a two way race was in 1984, when Walter Mondale was only able to muster 41% against President Reagan.

The elections of 1992 and 1996 saw only Bill Clinton get above 45% of the vote (1996) but both elections featured the fairly credible third party candidacy of Ross Perot; who received nearly 20% of the vote in 1992 and over 8% in 1996.

Our politics is too polarized, and too tribal, for the popular vote landslides of the past to happen these days. So the fact Trump is seeing his poll numbers increase as more GOP voters coalesce behind him is not the least bit surprising.

Second reason not to panic? These post-primary bounces happen all the time.

Becoming the presumptive nominee means positive press coverage for a few days and the coalescing of party support behind each candidate after, at times, a hotly contested primary. This means the polls will change from the time before to the time after a candidate is the last one standing after their party primary.

2016 is no different. As you can see, a comparison of polls taken before and after May 3 show a spike for Trump and a decrease of support for Hillary Clinton.

2016 Poll Changes

Many of these changes are pretty drastic. Two of the polls taken show Clinton’s margin dropping by double digits.

Right now, Clinton is getting hit on two fronts. One is the aforementioned coalescing of support behind Trump. Republican voters are “coming home,” as the saying goes.

The second issue Clinton has to deal with is her ongoing primary battle with Bernie Sanders. Much of the drop in support for Clinton is with the Sanders supporters who still believe he can win the nomination and say they will not vote for her in November. As with Trump, once Clinton is officially the presumptive nominee, expect many of these holdouts to start uniting behind her.

I’m not sure why the media and other politicos are acting like this is a new phenomenon. 

Take the 2012 election, for instance.

The Democrats didn’t have a contested primary given Obama was the incumbent president; the Republicans on the other hand, had a very contentious one. As you may remember, Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich all had their time as frontrunners before Mitt Romney eventually overwhelmed them and became the presumptive nominee on May 2, 2012.

On that day, Obama led Mitt Romney by an average of 3.6%.

2012 Polling Romney Clinch Graph

Six days later, on May 8, the race was basically tied.

2012 Polling Avg Graph

2012 Poll Changes

While Obama did not see a decrease as drastic as Clinton, he still fell in five of the seven polls taken throughout the month of May, after Romney won his primary. Obama eventually won re-election by 3.9% in an electoral college landslide.

The best comparison that can be made to this year is the 2008 election where both parties had open primaries. On the Republican side, there was clearly no love lost between John McCain and Mitt Romney. As for the Democrats, well, we all remember how nasty and divisive that primary was. Like the 2016 Democratic Primary, Obama had an insurmountable lead in delegates for months, yet Clinton hung in until early June.

While their race dragged on, McCain had the nomination in hand by March 4. On the day McCain became the presumptive nominee, Obama had an average lead of nearly 5%.

2008 Polling Avg McCain Clinch Graph

By March 24, just three weeks later, McCain led Obama in the polling average by 1.5%.

2008 Polling Avg Peak Graph

And take a look at how drastically some individual polls shifted during the month of March.

2008 Poll Changes

 

The swing in the overall polling margins and the drop in support for Obama is fairly similar to what is happening to Hillary Clinton right now.

However, by the time Obama clinched his nomination on June 3, he had taken a 1.5% average lead over McCain.

2008 Polling Avg Obama Clinch Graph

Obama had a post primary bounce of his own as more of the Clinton supporters who said “Party Unity My Ass (PUMA)” during their primary started to rally behind him. And save for a brief spike for McCain after the Republican Convention later in the summer, Obama lead the rest of the way; eventually winning the presidency by 7% in the popular vote.

And just for good measure, let’s also look back at 2004. With Bush running for re-election, all of the attention was on the Democrats. After cratering in the polls in the winter of 2007, John Kerry came roaring back and became the presumptive nominee on March 2 before officially winning enough delegates to clinch the nomination outright on March 11, 2004.

At that time, the polls had Kerry and Bush neck and neck, with Bush leading in the polling average by only 0.6%.

2004 Polling Kerry Clinch Graph

Oddly, in the immediate aftermath of securing the nomination, Kerry began to fall in the polls. This was in large part because of an ad blitz by the Bush campaign that painted Kerry as a tax and spend Massachusetts liberal.

It’s easier to see in the image below, but Kerry started to regain his footing as March turned to April and moved ahead of Bush by nearly 1% on April 6.

2004 Polling Avg Graph

The two traded leads over the course of the next few months until Bush pulled ahead for good in early September, eventually winning re-election by about 2.5%.

Take solace, Democrats. Clinton is still the favorite given the built in demographic and electoral college advantages Democrats currently enjoy. And a few recent state polls in New Hampshire, Ohio, and Florida show some decent news for her.

This is not to suggest Trump cannot win in November. He can. The election is going to be close.

That being said, considering recent polling history during this stage of an election year, it is not time for Democrats to panic……yet.

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