This far out, take polls with a grain of salt

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential Donald Trump cheer outside a campaign event in Williamson, W.Va., May 2. (Reuters/Jim Young)

Now we know: Next November, Americans will get to choose between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump as the chief magistrate of the land. And already the head-to-head polling shows a tight race in key swing states.

But can the polling be trusted? Is it useful at this stage of the race?

In discussing polls, pundits almost always note that a poll registers attitudes "if the election were held today." Everyone should take polls this far out with a grain of salt. There is a campaign to be run between now and November and the shape of the race can change depending on how the candidates perform.

The next big moment for both candidates will be their selection of a vice presidential candidate, a choice that will be viewed as their first "presidential" decision. These choices do not usually help or hurt very much, except at the margins, but elections are often won at the margins.

The bigger caveat about polling, one that pundits are less likely to note, is this: These polling results register attitudes of voters if the electorate looks like the polling sample constructed by the pollster.

Demographics will be especially important this year because the Obama coalition of minorities, young voters and unmarried women does not necessarily transfer completely to Clinton, and because Trump believes, with some evidence, that he is bringing new, mostly white males into the Republican ranks.

A Quinnipiac poll in May showed a very close race in the key swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but their samples in the three states registered 3-5 percent more white voters in their poll than cast ballots in the 2012 election.

Why? No one knows for sure. Pollsters closely guard their decision-making and algorithms for determining the demographics of a race. And some analysts who are good with numbers sometimes miss the larger political environment.

For example, in an analysis at The Cook Political Report, the gold standard of nonpartisan political analysis, David Wasserman noted that while the Latino share of the total electorate continues to grow, the Latino population is concentrated in a few states, most of which are not swing states.

"Nationally, Latinos were 10 percent of all voters in 2012," he wrote. "But Latinos averaged just 6.9 percent of voters in the 12 heavily contested swing states. Even if Mitt Romney had won a 10 percent higher share of Latinos in every single state, he would have won only one additional state: Florida."

Only Florida? Ask Al Gore about that. Additionally, if Democrats think they have a lock on Florida because of the Latino vote, they can devote resources to other states like Ohio and Virginia.

Usually, people who will be voting this year are the same people who voted last time. The first thing to look for in any polling data is whether it measures registered voters or likely voters. Lots of registered voters have not actually voted in years.

What if one candidate can catch fire and bring people to the polls who never voted before? This is the claim of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but, unfortunately for his argument, the number of people voting in the Democratic primaries this year is well short of the number who voted in 2008.

Some pollsters and pundits suggest that demographics is destiny. At, the same Wasserman notes that national demographic trends have been tilting the electorate toward the Democrats for 30 years:

There's no question that recent demographic trends have aided Democrats enormously. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of all white voters and won [the] election in a 44-state landslide. In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried 59 percent of all white voters yet lost decisively. What happened? African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other non-whites -- all overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning groups -- rose from 12 percent of voters in 1980 to 28 percent in 2012.

Wasserman goes on to note, however, that educational attainment has become an even more determinate factor in electoral patterns:

In both 2008 and 2012, Republicans' best group by far -- of the five we examined -- was white voters without college degrees. The GOP carried that group by 14 percentage points in 2008 and a whopping 26 points in 2012. However, these voters -- who skew older and more rural -- decline 3 percentage points every four years as a share of the overall electorate. In contrast, white degree-holders -- who still lean Republican but are much likelier to support Democrats than whites without a degree -- rise a percentage point every four years.

And it is precisely this demographic, non-college whites, that constitutes the core of Trump's support. The ratio of non-college whites to the rest of the electorate is also significantly higher in those large industrial states -- Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- that Trump argues he can flip from blue to red in November.

The last time a Republican won Michigan or Pennsylvania was in 1988. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio. And the Latino population, one of the fastest-growing demographics nationwide, remains relatively small in all three states.

Conversely, all three states have a significant black population. It is anyone's guess whether Clinton can perform as well among African-American voters as President Barack Obama did and, even more of an open question, how many African-American voters will turn out to vote in November compared to the previous two cycles.

The importance of polling at this stage of the race is not that it predicts who will win so much as it helps the campaigns chart their path to 270 Electoral College votes. Trump's low numbers among Latinos mean that some states that lean Democratic, like Colorado and Nevada, will fall more easily into the Clinton column than in previous years, and she has a big edge in Florida.

On the other hand, as noted above, Trump's appeal with white working-class voters may make large industrial states more competitive than they have been in recent years. Obama won Michigan by almost 10 points in 2012, and 10 points is a really big swing in one cycle, but he only won Pennsylvania by 5 points, and Ohio by only 4.

The Clinton team needs to decide whether it will make a play for white working-class voters, or appeal to moderate suburban women, many of whom are Republicans. A super PAC supporting Clinton is already running an advertisement that highlights the ugly, misogynistic things Trump has said about women.

Will the Clinton team also run ads that delve into the shadier aspects of his business career? In 2012, the Obama team turned Bain Capital into cuss words, damaging Romney's reputation among working-class voters. Katie Packer, a GOP operative who founded an anti-Trump PAC, predicted that if they wanted to, Democrats could paint the Trump Organization in such dark hues, Bain Capital would end up looking like Catholic Charities.

Of course, with Trump as the GOP nominee, the only thing we know for certain this year is that predictions are dangerous and all bets are off. He dominates a news cycle like no other candidate in history, collects earned media better than any previous candidate, and seems not to pay a penalty for saying things that would have sunk a typical candidate. The only poll that really counts so far, the vote totals in the primaries, confirm it.

[Michael Sean Winters blogs about religion and politics online at]

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