You might have seen new national poll numbers from Fox News, released Wednesday night, that paint a fascinating portrait of the Republican race. Donald Trump, the figures show, remains in first place in the race for the nomination, actually increasing his share of support from 25 percent in the middle of August to 26 percent now. He's trailed by Ben Carson at 18 percent and Carly Fiorina at 9 percent.
But wait. You might also have seen CNN/ORC's new poll from over the weekend. That one had Trump at 24 percent — down from 32 percent earlier this month. And that poll had Fiorina in second at 15 percent, and Carson in third with 14.
And then there was Bloomberg's new poll, out Thursday, showing Trump at 21, right where he had been. In that one, Jeb Bush was in third, with 13 percent, over Fiorina's 9. And Quinnipiac! Another poll, another result: Trump 25, Carson 17, Fiorina 12.
So what gives?
If we plot all four of these recent polls against each other, the picture becomes more clear. You can see that the most recent results are fairly well-clustered, as you'd expect them to be, and that, for the most part, the change since each pollster's previous poll is generally in the same direction.
The variance is largely due to margins of error and the different times at which the earlier polls were conducted — longstanding and important caveats for any poll.
That's why we try to rely as much as possible on poll averages, like the great one that Real Clear Politics puts together. Here's the change for these six candidates since June 1.
Donald Trump still leads the field — but his position has softened significantly. This is the biggest polling average drop he's seen since he first emerged as the Republican front-runner.
Trump loves to cherry-pick polls that show him doing well. He likes to talk about isolated (and iffy) polls that show him doing well with Hispanic and black voters, but those results should be questioned. After CNN released its poll last weekend— the one showing the big drop— he went on Twitter to complain about how he wanted the media to look at more favorable polling — often with shakier or less-proven methodologies. (His supporters, in my experience, do the same thing.)
But he's not doing well — or, at least, he's not doing as well as he used to be doing.
There's a lot of variability in this race, as the graphs above clearly show. But it's rare in recent primary elections for a candidate to suddenly spike, then fade, then spike again. In most cases, the candidate that suddenly spikes never spikes again, with the exception of Newt Gingrich in 2012.
The irony of the week is that the poll that Trump would probably most like to cite is the one from Fox News — the outlet that he declared war on earlier this week. Why? In part, because Fox was covering the dip in poll numbers seen by CNN/ORC.