Wondering who’s up and who’s down in the 2016 presidential race?
Go for a run, tend the garden, clean the closet, remove the lint from the dryer, and then do it all over again because it’s going to be a long time before the polls will tell us much about who’s likely to be our next president.
The fact is, what the polls do show is that most Americans aren’t yet paying enough attention to make the horse race results worth much at all.
The first votes of the 2016 presidential campaign are roughly a year away. Right now, there aren’t even any officially declared candidates for president.
But there are plenty of polls asking about the few dozen folks who are all but certain to seek the White House, and none of them has the ability to predict who among them might emerge to replace President Barack Obama.
Take, for example, an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted at the end of January. It found that two-thirds of Americans were unfamiliar with two Republicans who have attracted lots of attention for their performance in polls this year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and conservative darling Ben Carson.
Only a handful of potential candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie among them, are known well enough that significantly more than half of Americans are able to give them favorable or unfavorable ratings. Even then, those two names are unknown to one-third of Americans.
In a Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday, less than 15 percent of those polled were unwilling to choose between Hillary Clinton and a variety of Republicans, even though as many of half of the respondents were unable to offer an opinion about the potential GOP candidates.
Another recent poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, suggested that even in states with early primaries and caucuses, few potential voters have given much thought to the race.
That survey, conducted in January and February, found that more than three-quarters of likely primary or general election voters in New Hampshire say they’re not leaning toward any one candidate.
It will be a while before horse race polls start to have any value. Even early in the year of the election itself, there’s little correlation between where the candidates stand in the polls and the final outcome of the race, according to research by political scientists Robert S. Erikson of Columbia University and Christopher Wlezien of the University of Texas.
“Gradually over the election year, it becomes crystallized more and more,” Erikson said. “After the second convention, then the cake is usually baked.”
Right now, it needs a lot more time in the oven. The 2016 presidential nominating conventions that mark the point when general election horse race polls will be most predictive of the final outcome are more than 16 months away.
Poll watching is fraught with peril, too, in the presidential primaries. That’s the case, Erikson said, because Americans aren’t bound by loyalty to party that makes at least some of the votes in the general election more predictable.
Clinton led in national polls for virtually all of 2007, before Obama eclipsed her early in 2008. In the contest for the Republican nomination in 2012, candidates including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all took leads at various points in the campaign. None of them won the nomination.
“There’s going to be a lot of fluidity over the course of a (primary) campaign,” Erikson said. “A lot of people are going to claim to have the momentum.”
At this point in the race, even partisans aren’t tuned in. The AP-GfK poll found that many possible Republican candidates, including Walker, Carson, Santorum, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, were unknown to about half or more of Republicans. The Quinnipiac survey similarly found more than half of Republicans with no opinion on Walker, 45 percent with no opinion on Cruz and 42 percent with no opinion on Rubio, even though only 17 percent said they were unsure who they’d support in the primary.
Walker has done well in some recent polls. He’s also acknowledged those polls showing him on top don’t mean much.
“There’s a long ways between now and the time when the first ballots (are) cast — be it in the (Iowa) caucus or some of the early primary states,” Walker said. “The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. … There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs along the way.”
AP-GfK poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com
Emily Swanson is the news survey specialist at The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/EL_Swan
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