Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a gathering at a campaign stop at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, Mass., Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Game Changer Trump Disrupts Pollsters’ Assumptions

This goes to the question of who Donald Trump supporters really are. Are they Republicans? Democrats? Tea Partiers? Nobody can seem to agree.

In July, I wrote that “Trump is a unique personality that cuts through American culture like a chainsaw—rough, noisy, and with lots of flying pieces.” That should be self-evident to anyone following the race. His supporters are a mishmash of the disaffected, of all stripes.

Every candidate has blasted Trump, who moves his control stick to full-deflection on every issue, and the more they attack him, the stronger he gets. It’s counterintuitive, but logical given his unique status.

That’s every candidate, but one: Sen. Ted Cruz has managed to keep out of the fray, in the hopes that he can be the sole beneficiary of Trump’s followers when he—in Cruz’s calculus—falls to the law of political gravity. But we’re back to the question, “what followers?” So far all we know is that they have phones, use the Internet, mostly self-identify as Republican voters, and a number of them admit they’ve actually voted in a GOP primary.

It’s pretty sketchy information, really. Many pundits tout the fact that Trump supporters hail Cruz as their second choice, which would validate Cruz’s strategy.

Liberal wonk Nathan Gonzalez, half of the Rothenberg/Gonzales blog on CQ Roll Call, thinks they’re wrong.

Both Trump and Cruz have found success in Republican race by railing against the Republican establishment and there is a tendency to couple their fates because of their outsider message. But part of Trump’s appeal is his personality and profile, as evidenced by a December CNN piece, “Trump supporters’ second choice? Trump.”

But it’s all anecdotal.

Nate Cohn, statistics guru at “The Upshot” in the New York Times, thinks Trump supporters are “a certain kind of Democrat,” leading us to conclude that either Trump’s lead in the phone polls is ephemeral, or he’s building a “Democrats for Trump” base a la Reagan in 1980. The former would benefit all the other candidates, and the latter would spell doom for Hillary should Trump win the nomination.

Gonzalez thinks it’s “more complicated,” citing a Public Policy Polling automated poll of Iowa voters showing 36 percent of Trump supporters claiming Cruz as their second choice.  PPP’s methodology and adherence to statistical discipline is suspect, so their data is simply unreliable. But then he cites the Des Moines Register / Selzer & Co. poll, which is much more useful, that shows most of Trump’s supporters are low-probability caucus attendees.

The suggestion is that Cruz doesn’t need Trump’s supporters at all.

This kind of speculation goes for the entire polling operation: Polls are notoriously bad predictors of election results in the absence of real, actual voting data. And now, with Trump in the race, we can’t even draw a circle around the voter pool anymore.

Trump has, effectively, used the polls themselves to destroy polling credibility by disrupting the base assumptions pollsters use about who is and who isn’t a likely voter.

I’d call it a brilliant move if I thought Trump actually knew he was doing this. But he didn’t. He simply flies by the seat of his pants and his gut feel. He knows he has to distinguish himself from the other candidates, control the news cycle, and dominate national conversations. In that, he’s preternaturally gifted.

But is it all a house of cards? Anecdotal and real data suggests that there is a core of actual GOP support for Trump, that’s some degree smaller than his poll results indicate. But how much smaller?

That’s the question every candidate is asking, and the main reason that Bush, Christie, Kasich, Paul and Fiorina are sticking it out despite horrific polling numbers. If Trump can translate his spectacular rally attendance into GOTV results, the nomination may be within his reach, in spite of everyone’s prognostications of doom.

Then again, it could all simply be smoke which will clear to reveal Cruz standing holding an American flag with a big “S” on his chest. We will all learn one thing through this: statistical polling methods will never be the same after 2016. Pollsters: it’s time to change the game.

About the author

Steve Berman

The old Steve cared about money, prestige, and power. Then Christ found me. All at once things changed. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I spent 30 years in business. Now I write and edit. But mostly I love. I have a wife and 2 kids and a dog and we live in a little house in central Georgia.

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