Donald Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 45 to 42 percent among registered US voters, according to a Fox News poll released Wednesday night. The survey’s margin of error is 3 percent, so it’s possible this matchup is a tie. But still – this is the second national poll this week showing Trump in front. Is it time for Democrats to panic?
Well, panic is always an acceptable response in presidential politics. That’s particularly true if your primary opponent won’t accept the fact that he’s lost and is threatening damage within your own party, and if your own favorability ratings are pretty bad.
But in terms of the Fox poll per se, Democrats should refrain from taking to their beds with a pint of Chunky Monkey to binge-watch old Obama speeches.
Just. One. Poll. We’re violating our own pundit standards just writing this story. Individual polls are just blips in the data stream of life. It’s possible Mr. Trump is gaining, and it’s also possible he isn’t. Averages of major polls are far superior indicators of the state of political races, and in those Mrs. Clinton leads by 2.7 percent (Huffington Post) and 3.3 percent (RealClearPolitics).
Maybe the Fox poll shows Trump has benefited from Republicans coalescing around his candidacy now that he’s the presumptive nominee. Maybe it shows that Trump been boosted because Jupiter is in alignment with Mars and the Wolf Moon is blue tonight. Narratives are hard to resist, but until there’s more indication about what’s happening, we should. Sometimes they’re just journalists assigning stories to random numbers.
Results may vary. Even a poll average squiggles up and down like a worm unless you smooth out the results with a general path. This is because polling is an art, not a science, and in the short term you’re just as likely to see polls rebound in the other direction as you are to see a trend continue.
“When the latest poll is much different from what came before, we’re likely to see a bounce back – not because of any deep political forces, but just because what we’re seeing is a sequence of noisy measurements,” writes Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman today in The Washington Post, making the point better than we can.
The bottom line: Poll charts are akin to a car with an inexperienced driver veering back and forth across the road, but never hitting a curb and proceeding in a general direction. So the next poll may show Clinton back ahead. Who knows?
Maybe a little panic. All that said, the data we have right now indicates generally that the election is going to be close. Polls are only part of it. There are what political scientists call the fundamentals: The economy is OK, but not great enough to boost the candidate of the incumbent party. Obama’s job approval ratings are not great, though they're getting better. US voters are generally reluctant to elect the same party to third consecutive White House term.
Democrats who think that a Trump versus Clinton election will be a walkover are fooling themselves. Maybe the Fox poll will help that sink in.