The Great Polling Hoax

Earlier this week, national media boldly reported that Jeb Bush, nearly doubling his polling numbers, had jumped ahead of the Republican pack. Further, Scott Walker had made big gains and now clearly was in second place, with Marco Rubio strongly in third. Six candidates (including Donald Trump) somehow each scored only 1 percent or less. Rick Santorum miraculously was at zero.

The resulting media spin can affect each candidate’s momentum and fundraising, as well as shape reporting over the next few weeks.

One plausible reason for the apparent Jeb Bush surge is that this widely heralded NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey was conducted June 14-18, a period dominated by coverage of Bush’s announcement on June 15.

But we need to take a closer look at this major national survey, a hybrid conducted jointly for the mainstream media by two veteran and competent private polling firms, Hart Research Associates, a Democratic firm, and Public Opinion Strategies. The methodology here raises new doubts about averaging five very different national polls to disqualify Republican presidential candidates from at least the first televised debate.

After all, we know that being in a debate gives a candidate the opportunity to pull ahead in the polls. So this is a circular argument. Exclusion from the debate could doom a candidate. That’s why I’ve opposed an opening debate limited to the top ten candidates. Instead, I have advocated that if polls are used, the first national debate run two successive nights, thus over two news cycles. Night One would have candidates polling 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 and 15, and Night Two would have candidates polling 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16.

More relevant than these national polls would be polling only from the opening primary states. For example, a just-released Suffolk University poll of New Hampshire primary Republican voters shows Donald Trump in second place. I don’t know whether the survey is accurate or not. But I do know that when a candidate wins in a primary state next year, the resulting media coverage will quickly affect national polling numbers and provide momentum for the next primary.

But if early national polling is the criterion, let it at least be done plausibly and consistently. In reviewing the national surveys, it’s not only comparing apples and oranges, now there are vegetables, as we’ll see by examining this latest poll, the highly visible NBC/WSJ survey.