There are just eight-and-a-half weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, with two of those weeks devoted to holidays during which polling is ordinarily not conducted, and the race for the Republican presidential nomination seems to be taking perceptible shape. And it continues to defy conventional wisdom.
Since mid-July Donald Trump has been leading in the national polls, except for a moment early last month when he was effectively tied with Ben Carson. His numbers have moved up and down a bit but have stayed between 22 and 30 percent since early August.
He led in polls in Iowa from August to late October, when he was overtaken by Carson, and by late November, despite calling Iowa voters stupid, he was leading there again.
He has led in New Hampshire polls since late July, and by about 15 points since early August. He has led in South Carolina polls since early August, and by 15 points or more until Carson narrowed the gap in November.
Throughout all these months, most political professionals have pooh-poohed his chances of actually winning the nomination — and for plausible reasons. His trademark promise of deporting all 11 million illegal immigrants is surely a logistical impossibility. His promise to engage in deal-making with Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems astonishingly naive. His trash-talking of opponents and members of the press seems shockingly un-presidential.
But as veteran reporter Thomas Edsall writes in his New York Times blog, “his apparent vulnerabilities — his hubris, his narcissism, his bullying, his boisterousness — have been strengths in a primary campaign premised on defiance of political correctness, left and right.” Perhaps not coincidentally, many Republican voters see hubris, narcissism and bullying as characteristics of Barack Obama.
Trump’s support comes disproportionately from non-college graduates and from those with modest incomes — not the support base for Republican nominees in the recent past.
Interestingly, as FiveThirtyEight analyst Harry Enten points out, Trump has consistently run better in polls conducted by automated phone calls and over the Internet (29 percent) than in live-interview polls (23 percent).
Traditionally, live-interview polling has been the standard technique and its results more trusted. Respondents to Internet polls tend to be self-selected volunteers, not random samples, and it has been assumed that respondents are more likely to spoof machines than actual human beings.