Before the primaries start, February is a time when national polls tell us a fair amount about the final outcome.But wait! After that, the standard deviation creeps upward. The election is 169 days from now, and in about a week the standard deviation hits its maximum value for 2016. Truly, now is the single worst time to be paying attention to fresh polling data. I don’t know why this is. It could be because typically, one or both parties are still going through an active nomination contest – as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are doing now.Amusingly, national polls won’t reach their February levels of accuracy until August. The Clinton-Trump margin in February was Clinton +5.0%. So how about if we just use that until after the conventions. Can you wait? (emphasis added)
Wang’s question was rhetorical, as even he couldn’t wait. But the point is, political punditry waits for no medium-term trend to sort itself out, and because the dominant political fact over the past few weeks has been the narrowing of national polls, that’s going to be the topic du jour of the chattering class. Or, worse, we’ll get long think pieces heralding a major political realignment containing sentences such as “Today’s Republican Party is predominantly a Midwestern, white, working-class party with its geographic epicenter in the South and interior West” that I want to kill with fire.
The worst, most absolutely frustrating aspect of this whole thing is that pundits will have several built-in excuses for ignoring Wang’s cautionary warning. Polls are not terribly predictive at this point in the election campaign? Hey, they weren’t supposed to be predictive back in August for the nomination races and — whoops — turns out they were. Candidates weren’t supposed to become the presumptive nominee by trashing sitting governors of one’s own party in swing states, ignoring data analytics and spending paltry sums of money. Oops.
It doesn’t matter that political scientists are on stronger ground in predicting general elections than primary elections. It doesn’t matter that Trump’s tactics during a primary battle are likely to have very different effects on a polarized national electorate. And it doesn’t matter that it’s impossible to determine just how many idiots there are in the United States longingly discussing the opportunities for “Nazi-type change” in the country. Because there is — and should be — just enough doubt about expert confidence in how this election will play out. You can’t blame pundits for their election punditry right now, because 2016 is suggesting that the knowledge we’ve gleaned from past election cycles might not be as predictive as we think it is.
For the record, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is in the Sean Trende camp of “Clinton will probably win, but I’m far less sure about this than many of my peers are, given how successfully Trump has consolidated GOP support.” But mostly I’m going to be spending the next month trying not to write about the 2016 race. Because as little as we know about how this election will play out, I think that we know less about it during this point of the election cycle than at any other point this year.
Of course, I could be wrong.