Is Trump Really Leading the GOP Race? A Look at How Political Polling Really Works

*Originally published on on July 27th, 2015 by Sean Sawyer*

The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll revealed that Donald Trump has the biggest lead amongst Republican and Republican-leaning Independents since polling began for the Republican Primary. Trump leads the field with 24 percent of the vote followed by Scott Walker with 13 percent and Jeb Bush with 12 percent.

Wait hold on, Trump is winning the GOP nomination right now? How can that be with all of the negative press he receives on a daily basis? Well, to understand this we would have to look at just how polls are conducted to understand that.

How does polling work?

In 1936, George Gallup started to statistically try to predict who would win an election. He successfully predicted that FDR would trounce Alf Landon and thus polling was born. In fact, Gallup is still one of the most respected and well conducted polling companies in America. Since then, polls have become an important tool in measuring political races. Since 1980, polling has correctly predicted every winner of a Presidential election, with the exception of the incredibly tight 2000 Bush-Gore election.

The magic number in polling is 1,500. This number is perfect because when 1,500 people are polled, it yields a 3% +/- margin of error. Anything less would be too inaccurate, anything more gives no more accuracy. But, 1,500 of the nearly 319 million population of America is a mere .00047% representation of the country. What polling stations do is take the opinion of the 1,500 surveyed and weighs it against the demographics of America making it highly accurate, again a 3% +/- margin of error.

Polling is often compared to eating soup. If you take the right spoonful, you will know how the rest of the bowl of soup will taste. Polling stations use science and expertise to make sure they grab the right spoonful of the American bowl of soup.

Take the words of MIT political science professor Stephen Ansolabehere if you’re thinking there’s still no way a .00047% poll of America can represent that entire nation, “I’m perpetually surprised that results aren’t wrong more often.”

Could a commanding lead hurt a candidate?

If we look at the same poll, it shows that Hillary Clinton has a commanding 49-point lead amongst Democratic and Democratic-leaning Independents. So what if all of Clinton’s supports said to themselves, “Oh she’s got it in the bag, no need for me to vote.” Meanwhile, if Bernie Sanders’ supporters rallied together and made an impressive showing at the poll, a polling lead this big could potentially lead to an upset of Sanders over Clinton.

This is known as the Boomerang Effect and has happened before in history.

The historic headline from the 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune read “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Well, if you recall your US Presidents, we have never had a President Dewey. That’s because Truman actually won. The Chicago Daily Tribune relied on a poll to declare the winner rather than waiting to see how the actual election turned out. Truman upset Dewey in the real polls and won the Presidency in 1948. The polls were 49 percent Dewey to 44 percent Truman prior to the election, but the results were actually 35 percent to 57 percent, respectively. So, in 1948 polling may have actually cost Dewey the election and maybe the course of American history.


Truman holds up the incorrectly predicted headline after he beat Dewey in 1948 in this infamous photo. (Photo: AP)

So is Trump going to win the GOP nomination?

As of right now…maybe? If the vote was today, then yes there is a good chance that Trump would win the GOP nomination. But, the Iowa Caucus is scheduled for February 1st, 2016. We have a long, long time of news and campaigning to predict a winner.

But the polls can influence the race. Campaigning is often considered a horse race. As of right now, the candidates are halfway around the track and Trump and Clinton are leading their respective races. This could lead voters to hitch their wagon to these horses via peer pressure. If an uneducated voter were to see that Trump is leading the field, it is easier for him or her to vote for Trump, effectively giving him an even bigger lead.

But it is nearly impossible to predict a winner right now, especially in the current GOP field. As of right now, Trump, Walker, and Bush are at the lead. But in the second pack are a number of candidates, including someone like Ted Cruz who is currently sitting on over a $50 million campaign fund which could raise his stock once he starts to spend that money and start to compete for the lead.

How do we combat this?

The simple answer is to educate yourself on each candidate and to follow the news on each candidate’s policies. Then the next step is to go out and vote. Voting is essential to a democracy and no matter how deterred you may feel (for example, being a Republican in our most liberal state, Massachusetts), just go out and vote. Another tip is that when polling stations call you, take a few minutes to answer their questions. They may seem like telemarketers, but they’re not. And answer truthfully. Don’t be afraid to come off as bigoted or opinionated because an honest answer results in an honest poll.

And no matter what the polls show, go out and vote. In 1996, American had the lowest voter turnout because Bill Clinton was dominating the polls against Bob Dole. Only 49% of eligible voters turned out that year, the lowest since 1924. “The polls dampened voters’ interest and participation by announcing that the presidential contest was really no contest at all,” said political scientist Everett Ladd. Who knows, maybe Dole could’ve won via the Boomerang Effect if more voters turned out.


In conclusion, despite the negative daily press of Donald Trump, I would say that he is in fact in the lead of the GOP field as of today. Stay updated and check out my own profiles of our Presidential Candidates.


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