The news media are using polls to make sweeping judgments about the 2016 presidential race, and many politicians and their strategists are using opinion research to generate positive impressions about their electability and the issues they want to promote. The problem is that polls regarding the 2016 campaign mean next to nothing right now.
This point was deftly made in a new Columbia Journalism Review analysis published on the CJR website.
"We're still almost three years away from November 2016," wrote Brendan Nyhan, "but political journalists seem to want to fast-forward past the ongoing Washington stalemate to the next presidential election. How else can we explain the recent flurry of coverage for trial heat polls which pit possible presidential contenders against each other in hypothetical general election matchups?"
"There's just one problem," Nyhan added. "These polls – which exist mainly to generate press coverage for pollsters and fill space in the media – have zero predictive power at this point in the election cycle, don't tell us anything we can't learn from other metrics, and distract attention from the real action at this stage of the campaign."
These trial-heat polls have been conducted and reported in recent weeks for Colorado, Louisiana, Ohio and nationally. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is far ahead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the GOP field is fractured, according to the polls.
But these results could be misleading. The track record of such polls in the past has been weak. In late 2006 and early 2007, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led President Barack Obama in hypothetical matchups for the 2008 presidential race. But McCain went on to lose the popular vote to Obama by 7 percentage points in November 2008. In March 1998, Republican candidate George W. Bush led Democratic nominee Al Gore by 13 points but lost the popular vote by .5 points in November 2000. (Bush won the election after the Supreme Court awarded him the disputed State of Florida.)
Two big factors are missing from current polls. First, it's not known how the economy will be performing in 2016 and what the candidates will say about it. This wild card could decide the presidential race. Another factor is how the current hypothetical candidates perform on the stump. This also could decide the race.
For now, what's important is not polls of the hypothetical horse race but the ongoing and real-time contest for contributions, organizers and strategists. And that aspect of the 2016 race is probably under-covered by the media.