First, the headlines: In the latest national presidential preference poll from CNN/ORC, Donald Trump and Ben Carson sit firmly atop the Republican field, capturing nearly half their party’s potential voters between them. For Democrats, Hillary Clinton controls the top spot, garnering about the same level of support as she did before last week’s debate, with Bernie Sanders the only candidate on his side of the aisle showing a statistically significant increase this week.
In other news, the United States does not pick its presidents by national vote.
Debates about the Electoral College aside — because that indirect, state-by-state system is reserved for next November’s general election — the process of picking each party’s presidential nominee winds through a series of state caucuses and primaries (as well as some much-less-visible wheeling and dealing for the support of superdelegates), culminating in a pair of nominating conventions next summer. The candidates who wind up winning the state primaries — especially the early ones — do so as much (or more) because of regional dynamics, state campaign organizations and the bounce of the previous week’s results as they do because of any national survey numbers.
As of this week — still a good three and a half months from the first 2016 votes — state polls trend in a similar direction to the national surveys for the GOP, with Trump and Carson out in front in Iowa and Trump staying fairly strong in New Hampshire. On the Democratic front, state polls have been a little more volatile, with some Iowa and several New Hampshire surveys showing Sanders competitive with or even leading Clinton — thus outperforming his national numbers.
But even here, another caveat: Iowa is a caucus state and so is notoriously hard to poll. What happens on caucus night (this cycle it’s Feb. 1, 2016) depends on who shows up for what is often a multihour process in which people publicly declare their allegiances. That process depends largely on a campaign’s ground game.
So why all the fuss about the national numbers?
For the national media outlets, it stimulates (or simulates) national interest. A New Hampshire poll does not hold the same magic for viewers or readers in Missouri or New Mexico. But for candidates, while the organizing might be focused on Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary or caucus states (like South Carolina and Nevada), the fundraising is done in places like New York, Florida and California. And national viability (a fancy word for “popularity”) is important to donors maxing out their personal limits and bundling the bucks of wealthy compatriots.
But even that logic appears to be shifting this election cycle. Trump, though more closely tied with some outside fundraisers than he lets on, is still running a campaign largely financed out of pocket. Ben Carson has lent his campaign personal funds and is also said to do well with a collection of small-donor, ultraconservative email operations. Several of the other GOP hopefuls are keeping their campaigns going by relying on just a handful of deep-pocketed and deeply committed donors.
For Sanders, national visibility and viability do seem to play a role. Though much credit should go to the Vermont senator’s Internet communications and social media teams, the multimillion-dollar fundraising bump that followed last week’s Democratic debate appearance was impressive by most measures.
But there might be another reason to keep one eye on the polls. Professional poll watchers — whom campaigns pay to keep tabs on this — will point to trends more than any specific survey. And in this, on the GOP side, there could be some interesting things to say about the present and future of Trump.
Think back to the last presidential cycle, where a series of surprise front-runners took turns at the top of the national opinion polls. At this point in 2011, Republicans were roughly in their Herman Cain phase. By December, however, that phase and Cain’s run were over.
At this point in the 2016 race, Trump has already lead the national polls for a longer time than every one of the rotating GOP front-runners combined in 2011. He has also led for more days than there are days remaining till the Iowa caucuses.
But as the runners-up have seemed to rise and fall over recent months, Trump’s numbers have usually remained about the same. Approximately a quarter of Republican voters — give or take a handful of percentage points, roughly the margin of error for most of the polls — say they prefer him as their party’s nominee. He has led the polls, but it appears he has not gained significant support, even as some candidates have dropped off and a couple have dropped out.
When the now-crowded GOP field starts to thin, where will the supporters of the recently departed candidates go? Is Jeb Bush still strong enough to gather up the establishment-friendly? Who gets the evangelical vote? Is there an obvious consensus pick for tea party sympathizers?
And are any of those parts of the modern Republican electorate natural fits for Trump?
The saying is that Democrats fall in love, while Republicans fall in line. But beyond “somewhere on the right,” where that line forms still seems beyond the national polls’ ability to predict.