At this time four years ago, the Republican race for President was far from close. In the field of eight candidates, Rick Perry had emerged from the pack and taken a commanding lead. Three months later, he was occupying only 6.6 percent of the polls before he officially suspended his campaign. A little more than a month after Perry’s initial rise, Herman Cain also enjoyed a small spike in the polls and then quickly floundered again. In fact, by the end of the election, Mitt Romney had, at one point or another, been surpassed by four of his opponents. He ended up winning the nomination in a landslide.
My point is simple: this early on, polls cannot predict the eventual winner.
Year after year, election after election, frontrunners become also-rans, and vice versa. It is the natural progression of a campaign. Pundits say that a much more secure indicator of elections is the amount of endorsements, which paint a vastly different picture from current polls. Yet for some reason, the media continues to fixate on momentary boosts in polling, rather than the broader message they represent.
The perfect case study for this phenomenon is Mitt Romney. All four of the candidates who surpassed him at one time in 2012 – Gingrich, Perry, Santorum and Cain – were solidly conservative. They all also had scandals, gaffes and baggage that made them completely unelectable. Even Romney was criticized for flip-flopping, when his positions transitioned from moderate to conservative.
Polls do, however, serve as indicators of current trends in the electoral mood.
If there is any takeaway from the recent polling success of candidates such as Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, it is that their numbers reflect dissatisfaction with the current political climate. All three candidates represent attempts at the presidency from non-politicians – Trump and Fiorina are businesspeople and Carson is a doctor.
Bernie Sanders is another candidate, currently surging, but he is not a political outsider. He is one of the longest-serving members of Congress. Like Carson and Fiorina, his campaign is gaining traction not because he is part of the political establishment, but because he speaks as if he is outside of it. In his speeches, like at a recent event at Liberty University, he spoke about the horrible realities of youth unemployment and income inequality in the nation, subtly criticizing the status quo under the current president. He made no mention of his career as a Congressman, opting instead to paint himself as someone who fights against the status quo, rather than one who creates it. The old adage says that actions speak louder than words. Evidently, in politics it’s the words that have the most impact.