Polls Three Years Ahead of Election Day Are Dumb

Rudy Giuliani is not president. Condoleezza Rice never even ran for president. So why are people paying so much attention to early 2016 polling?

A dog wears a sticker in support of Former New York City mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani during his campaign stop at TooJay's gourmet deli January 22, 2008 in West Palm Beach, Florida. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
Nov. 12, 2013, 6:03 a.m.

It’s late fall, three years out from an up-for-grabs pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. And the big news is that Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton of New York is edging out Sec­ret­ary of State Con­doleezza Rice in a 2008 pres­id­en­tial match­up. Clin­ton is even crush­ing her Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion, with 41 per­cent sup­port com­pared with 17 per­cent for Sen. John Kerry and 14 per­cent for former Sen. John Ed­wards.

Which is great news for Hil­lary! Ex­cept that, ac­cord­ing to the Mar­ist poll, the former first lady is still down by 7 per­cent­age points to the Re­pub­lic­an front-run­ner, former New York City May­or Rudy Gi­uliani.

Of course, none of these people be­came pres­id­ent. Gi­uliani’s cam­paign com­pletely im­ploded (RIP the Flor­ida Gam­bit). Rice nev­er ran. And the even­tu­al win­ner of the 2008 Demo­crat­ic primary and the 2008 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, Barack Obama, wasn’t even be­ing floated in the polls.

All of this is to say, please just tune out the early 2016 pro­gnost­ic­at­ing. Sure, it’s very ex­cit­ing to see a new NBC poll out today that has Clin­ton lead­ing New Jer­sey Gov­ernor Chris Christie, 44 per­cent to 35 per­cent. But we’re three years out. Clin­ton was in­ev­it­able in the fall of 2005, too.

Then, as now, she had a com­mand­ing lead among the Demo­crat­ic field. Take a look at this polling from Gal­lup in Au­gust 2005:

Yeah, it’s ar­gu­able that the cur­rent Demo­crat­ic field is weak­er than it was in 2005 (sorry, Mar­tin O’Mal­ley). And, as Dave Wiegel points out at Slate, Clin­ton had a much steep­er hill (see: Ir­aq) in 2008, and is viewed much more fa­vor­ably now than she was then. But the polling three years out from 2008 still didn’t even fea­ture the per­son who would present Clin­ton with the biggest chal­lenge. And it also of course fea­tured more than a few people who didn’t even wind up run­ning.

The Rudy Gi­uliani fever wasn’t just a fleet­ing one-off in 2005. A Decem­ber, 2005 poll from CNN/USA Today/Gal­lup pro­jec­ted Clin­ton and Gi­uliani as the fa­vor­ites for their party nom­in­a­tions in 2008. Clin­ton was up nearly 30 per­cent on her closest rivals (Kerry and Ed­wards), and only 13 per­cent of Demo­crats said they’d sup­port a non­lis­ted can­did­ate (ter­rible news for Barack Obama). Gi­uliani, mean­while, was up 8 per­cent on the even­tu­al nom­in­ee, John Mc­Cain. Again, Con­doleezza Rice sneaked in­to the lead­ing GOP pack, with 18 per­cent sup­port.

The prob­lem isn’t just goofs in polling or tight swings in polit­ic­al opin­ion. It’s that three years is a lot of time. This isn’t new. In 2005, Hot­line put to­geth­er polling av­er­ages for pres­id­en­tial elec­tions three years out, from Janu­ary to Au­gust of those years. Here’s what they found for the 2004 Demo­crat­ic primary (so, polls from 2001):

41% Al Gore

19% Hil­lary Clin­ton

9% Joe Lieber­man

8% Bill Brad­ley

7% Dick Geph­ardt

4% John Kerry

2% John Ed­wards

2% Bob Ker­rey

Gore, Clin­ton, and Brad­ley didn’t run that year. The three ac­tu­al front-run­ners, Howard Dean, Kerry, and Ed­wards, barely made a blip in the polling.

Early polling is muddled with can­did­ates who don’t even run. As Hot­line called them in 2005, these early polls are “Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture for politicos.” And as Mark Blu­menth­al wrote back then, the polls also fail in tak­ing in a sample of the elect­or­ate which has an in­cred­ibly lim­ited in­flu­ence on who ac­tu­ally gets nom­in­ated for pres­id­ent by the polit­ic­al parties. 

So, why do we care about what 2013 polls say about the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race? It’s not like there’s much else go­ing on in the world.

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