No, Donald Trump is not sinking. Ted Cruz has not suddenly emerged as the new national Republican frontrunner.
For a brief time this week the debunked scenario above seemed to be the new normal of the GOP race. Why? One big poll, that’s why. On Wednesday a new Wall Street Journal/NBC national survey showed Texas Senator Cruz climbing past billionaire Mr. Trump into first place, 28 to 26 percent.
The poll also showed a lurch downward in the percentage of Republican voters who said they could ever support The Donald, from 65 percent in January to 56 percent today.
Some pundits leaped on the numbers as proof that Trump was collapsing. His poor performance at the last GOP debate finally did him in! His use of a vulgarity resonated badly with voters! And so forth, as experts rushed to attach a narrative to a collection of random numbers. Just like sports commentary.
Never mind. On Thursday a rush of even newer polls indicate that the most likely story here is that the Wall Street Journal/NBC numbers are an outlier, a variation, a predictable deviation from the norm.
A new Reuters survey has Trump with 40 percent and Cruz with 17, for instance. Marco Rubio is in third with 11.
There’s still the slimmest of possibilities that the Cruz-in-front thing is right. If you look at the fine print it appears the Wall Street Journal poll, though released earlier, actually began acquiring data two days later than its counterparts. So maybe there was a big swing in those two days that others did not catch.
That’s pretty unlikely, though. The lesson here is that individual polls are all suspect by nature, and the best approach is to average them. That’s why we try to shoehorn the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys into all our statistical stories.
That’s currently got Trump with 33.8 percent, Cruz with 21, and Rubio with 16.3 percent.
Also remember that we’ve reached a point in the campaign where national polls are of declining importance. With actual voting under way, what really counts are state polls for upcoming primaries and caucuses – if the pollster is good and there are enough individual surveys to average out the errors.
On that front Trump leads in South Carolina, which holds a GOP primary on Saturday, by 16.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics rolling average. That’s pretty close to where he was in January.
He’s also got leads in many, though not all, of the states that vote between now and March 15 – the point at which 50 percent of GOP delegates will have been awarded. If Ted Cruz and/or Marco Rubio are to give Trump a real challenge, it’s time for that start.