We hear a lot of talk about the November election especially from John Kasich who has lost 45 of 46 primary contests but stays in the race because he’s the only Republican who beats Hillary head on in the polls. “Remember this,” Kasich told Fox, “I’m beating Hillary Clinton in every single poll… I’m the only one with the positive ratings so we ought to be focusing on what happens in the fall not just who wins the nomination.”
But as Kasich knows – and everyone else should – polls are merely snapshots of the way people think when they are taken. Polls taken before the actual campaigns, whose purpose is to influence people’s opinions, are meaningless. They are also meaningless because events like the Iranian hostage crisis in the Reagan-Carter election of 1980 can change everything.
There have already been campaigns in the primaries. On the Republican side this is a good part of the reason why the negatives for Trump and Cruz are so high. Republicans have spent more than 100 million dollars to convince voters to never vote for Trump, and Trump has fought back by flooding the TV airwaves with character attacks on “Lyin’ Ted” that have driven his negatives almost as high. Perhaps in the next election cycle Republicans will have learned to design their primary advertising and debates so that they don’t destroy their potential candidates before the Democrats even get a crack at them. But don’t bet on it.
Fortunately for Republicans, Hillary has raised her own negatives high enough by her own efforts that the two may cancel each other out. No one knows what the effects of such negatives on both sides will be, because no one knows what the electorate’s opinion in November will be.
In any case a simple glance at the facts is enough to show why all polls about the November elections taken in April are virtually meaningless, especially when the spread is 10 or 11 points as most of those polls are now.
In April 1980 Carter led Reagan 40% to 34%. In November, Reagan beat Carter by 50.7% to 41%
In May 1988 Dukakis led Bush 54% to 38%. In November Bush beat Dukakis by 53.4% to 45.6%
In April 1992, Bush led Clinton 44% to 25%. Clinton won in November 43% to 37.4%.
That’s three important elections. But one need look no further than this year’s Republican primaries to see how campaigns can change the numbers. At first it was said that Trump would be toast in September, then that he couldn’t break a 20% ceiling in winning Republican support. Then the ceiling became 30%, then 40%, then 50%. In the latest primaries, Trump won 60% of the Republican vote. Obviously he has overcome a lot of negatives and a lot of hostile political ads to reach those figures. Could he do the same in a general campaign? At this point nobody knows.
One thing we do know, however, because Republican primary voters have already spoken: The political landscape is changing before our eyes, and the Republican Party will never be the same. This is true whether the GOP falls apart at the convention in August and cedes the election to Hillary Clinton, or whether its standard-bearer is an anti-establishment Republican like Trump or Cruz.