Political opinion polls can be useful, but they can also be dangerous in a figurative sense. Those thinking the election is over because a poll says so can be in for the shock of their lives.
Polls can get it wrong in a big way. We have some recent examples.
Going into Tuesday night’s statewide elections in Kentucky, Republican Matt Bevin was trailing Democrat Jack Conway by 5 points in the race for governor, according to the final Bluegrass Poll conducted by SurveyUSA. In the end, Bevin won by 9 points.
In 2014, projected Republican turnout was way off in polls, leaving pundits “shocked” by the nationwide GOP rout. In 2012, projected Democratic turnout was also off, surprising some pundits, Mitt Romney and other Republicans that President Barack Obama was re-elected.
This week, three national polls came out with slightly different results. The Quinnipiac University poll and Fox News poll shows Donald Trump narrowly leading Dr. Ben Carson. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Carson leading Trump by 6 points.
In all three polls, Sen. Marco Rubio is either tied with, or slightly leading, Sen.Ted Cruz for third and fourth. On average, Jeb Bush is fifth in all three, ranging from 8 percent support to 4 percent.
While there are differences, these polls crystallize the status of the race. There are now three distinct levels.
First, Trump and Carson are clearly at the top in tier one. They are separated from tier two consisting of Rubio and Cruz by 10 to 15 points. The third tier is Bush with perhaps Kasich and Christie on the edge.
It also shows the Carly Fiorinamania is already ebbing. Others will not be able to hang on that much longer.
Again, if these polls are at least somewhat accurate, we have identified the top contenders and the all-important mood of the Republican primary electorate. The mood appears to be anger.
The surveys show that half of the Republican electorate, as of today, clearly wants a real outsider. Among a quarter of the GOP voters, they like two Hispanic senators with limited government experience.
That leaves Bush as the most acceptable candidate of the “establishment,” although his experience as an elected office holder is less than that of both Rubio and Cruz, when factoring in the two senators’ public service in their home states.
Four percent? 8 percent? How is it possible that Bush could be at that level with the first caucus and primary only three months away?
Could these polls be as wrong as those that had Matt Bevin going down to defeat in Kentucky? The Bush campaign clearly hopes pollsters are missing some of his voters.
What is even more shocking is seeing Bush’s standing in his home state of Florida. This week, a Bay News 9 “exclusive” poll had Trump leading Carson by 37-17 percent. Rubio was third, Cruz fourth and Bush fifth.
The numbers startled the GOP political world, but perhaps this one should be ignored. SurveyUSA also did this poll using the same methodology as the one that showed Bevin going down to defeat. Steve Vancore, a polling professional, analyzed the poll for Context Florida and said it should be taken with a “full shaker of salt.”
Some who only look at polls say that Bush should think about dropping out. That is nonsense at this point. Polls are too volatile with so many candidates in the race. Too much can still happen above him and he still has the resources to make things happen.
Movement in these polls can be traced back to use of the media. Trump has earned plenty of free media just by talking loudly and promising an “amazing” economy.
Carson has talked softly, but used social media extensively and been a highly likeable guy. Rubio and Cruz have used their communications skills during the debates to fuel their candidacies.
Bush admits these types of debates are clearly not his strong point. Few will argue with him, but it begs the question, “What is your strong point?” Whatever it is, use the media to exploit it.
What will make the poll numbers move? Most importantly, what makes them move in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina?
Bush’s 19 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable gap in the NBC polls is mind-boggling. His stance on Common Core and immigration reform can’t explain all of that.
So until the first of the year, we are stuck with polls. Lots of them. There will be more debates, including the next one in Milwaukee on Nov.10.
The Republican Party of Florida’s Sunshine Summit is next weekend. Bush and Rubio, along with 10 other candidates, will both have the chance to tell Floridians what they are for.
Then we wait for more polls.
Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee.