How to Read the Polls When (Almost) Everybody Is Running For President

Aug 14, 2015

The presidential field is crowded: sardine-can crowded. Voters trying to keep up on the race have more than twenty candidates to follow. On the Republican side alone, there are more candidates (17) than there are voters in Dixville Notch. With such a packed GOP field, the leaders are often only polling in the teens, and there is little daylight between clusters of candidates.

The near-daily poll releases have arguably contributed to the sense of chaos. In the past week, there have been four new national polls of the primary, one from New Hampshire, and three from Iowa, not to mention a number from other states with later primaries. But take a step back, and you’ll see a certain order to the chaos. The race, nationally and in New Hampshire, is starting to take shape.

The GOP

On the Republican side, two forces have altered the structure of the race in recent weeks: the emergence of Donald Trump, and the first debate, held last week on Fox News. The New Hampshire polls up to this point can be broken up roughly into three phases, separated by these events.

To get a sense of how support has shifted, we examined all polls conducted in New Hampshire during each phase, using data from HuffPollster, who tracks public poll releases. To smooth out the spikes and troughs of each individual poll we averaged the results of the polls.

Average Candidate Support in N.H. Polls

Source: HuffPollster averages of New Hampshire polls

  1. Pre-Trump announcement. In the two months before Trump announced in mid-June, the campaign in New Hampshire was a four-way race between former Florida gov Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. There was no particularly clear leader, though Bush held perhaps a slight edge.
  2. The Trump surge. Once he announced, Trump shot quickly to the front of the field, in New Hampshire and pretty much everywhere else. Despite repeated predictions of his impending demise, Trump has endured. His support grew, even amidst political controversies that probably would have done in most other candidates. His ascent also shook up the logjam atop the field in New Hampshire. Bush took a clearer second place to Trump, and the other candidates receded somewhat.
  3. Post-debate. Since the debate, Trump continues to lead, with 18 percent, though several polls have shown he may have slipped slightly. He is now followed by Bush at 13 percent, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (12 percent), Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (10 percent) and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (9 percent). The rise of Kasich and Fiorina follows strong performances in the Fox debates – Kasich as a moderate voice in the primetime event, and Fiorina as the stand out in the so-called “kiddie table” debate preceding it.  Meanwhile, Walker (4 percent) seems to be on the decline, both in the Granite State and elsewhere. There has been only a single New Hampshire poll since the debate, but it largely reflects poll trends we are seeing elsewhere in the country, suggesting the results are more than just the random variation.

Nobody knows what next thing will shift the GOP polls. But odds are pretty good the wild ride is not over. In fact, big movement in the polls the summer before voting starts are normal. In 2011, for instance, Rick Perry. Herman Cain, and Michelle Bachman each took a turn atop the national GOP polls before fading as summer turned to fall. And in the summer of 2007, John McCain rain third in New Hampshire behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, before eventually surging to victory in the 2008 Republican primary.

The Democrats

The Democratic side is a bit less chaotic, though that campaign is turning out to be at least somewhat more competitive than early prognostications suggested. A new Franklin Pierce / Boston Herald poll in New Hampshire showed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with his first lead of the campaign over Hillary Clinton (7 points). This is the latest in a string of polls going back to March showing Sanders climbing and Clinton staying roughly in the same range. Poll averages now show the two tied in New Hampshire.

Even if Clinton really is slipping in New Hampshire, which is not clear from one poll, her current grip on the primary process is strong.  Sanders’ performance in New Hampshire is an outlier, at least for now. He has made little clear progress in Iowa, and is trailing far behind her nationally. His strength New Hampshire’s less diverse electorate belies the challenge he faces further down the road.

But Clinton’s real problem is not in the primary (for now), it’s later on. Nationally, her favorability ratings are “underwater” – meaning more voters view her unfavorably than favorably. This could present a major problem if her image problems continue into the general election. Several recent polls have shown hypothetical general election matchups looking less rosy for Clinton.  Still, at the moment, no other Democrat seems ready to capitalize on her polling woes. It has led to a burst of rumors about other possible Democratic candidates such as Vice President Joe Biden and Former Vice President Al Gore, but nothing concrete for the time being.

Looking ahead

Moving ahead, we can be assured of a steady diet of polling in New Hampshire. In recent election cycles, New Hampshire residents have been polled more than those of any other state, and by a wide margin. That’s because New Hampshire’s generally “purple” politics, especially in recent years – it’s a place where either party can win – and many fewer residents for pollsters, campaigns and political action committees to poll.

That last problem is compounded by the unprecedented size of the presidential field this year. With more than 20 campaigns firing up their polling apparatus, New Hampshire voters will likely be polled more than ever.

Steve Koczela is president of The MassINC Polling Group. He will write occasional columns for NHPR about the role polling and public opinion research play in the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary.