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Presidential polls are meaningless this early in the race

Aug 25, 2015

 Years and years ago, I worked for a crusty old publisher who would not report the results of opinion polling in his newspaper. I thought he was a horribly backward troglodyte.

Today, I’m not so sure. In fact, I have come to think that most so-called election polling is somewhere between silly and stupid and harmful to the democratic process.

  Now, some opinion surveys are extremely valuable to everyone — candidates, policymakers and the general public. I’m all in favor of polls that show what issues are the most important to us, what we are worried about and what we most want from our leaders.

But most of what we see instead is “horse-race” polling. Today’s Detroit Free Press presents an especially bad example. If you had asked me yesterday what their main story would be today, I would have guessed the stock markets.

Instead, nearly all the newspaper’s front page is taken up with a huge story about how Hillary Clinton would do in Michigan if the presidential election were held today and the Republican nominee was either Jeb Bush or Donald Trump.

According to the poll, which the newspaper did in collaboration with a local TV station, Clinton would narrowly defeat Trump and narrowly lose to Bush. This is almost as meaningless today as a poll asking who Democratic primary voters would choose in the year 2040, if it comes down to Chelsea Clinton and Sasha Obama.

What political junkies may not realize is that very few normal humans are paying much attention to next year’s presidential campaign at all. The general election is more than 14 months away. Michigan’s primary, more than six months away.

There are young people out there who don’t know each other yet who will meet, fall in love and have a baby before we next vote for president.

Here’s how nutty trumpeting a poll like this is: A similar poll done eight years ago would have asked how voters felt about Hillary Clinton, but wouldn’t have mentioned the eventual Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. He wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen yet.

But today’s poll does seem to reinforce the idea that Clinton is the certain Democratic nominee, and that the GOP contest is down to a two-man race.

Well, if that’s the case, why is Bernie Sanders doing so well in some states, and why is Vice-President Biden thinking about getting in? And why are more than a dozen other Republicans spending millions running for president?

Whether or not pollsters like it, nominees are supposed to be determined by the voters only after the candidates campaign, as imperfect as campaigns today may be.

Actually, to me, what this poll does indicate is exactly the opposite of the headline. For the last two months, news of the campaign has pretty much been all Trump, all the time. The only stories about Clinton have been those attacking her over how she sent her email. The fact that she is even close to her two Republican rivals might be seen as a plus for her. What’s not a plus for anybody is that most people apparently have a negative view of all three candidates.

It will be interesting to see what happens if that doesn’t change.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.