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Eye On Candidates
September 15, 2015

The Limits of Analytics

This far out from the first votes in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, the closest thing to real numbers that anyone can use to gauge how well candidates are doing are poll results. Bloomberg Politics this morning features an analysis of how these raw numbers offer at best a limited insight on the 2016 nomination contest’s status quo:

Why It's So Hard to Understand 2016 With Numbers Alone

The new breed of cool analytical election observers—from Nate Silver at 538 to the folks at the Upshot or Monkey Cage—roll their eyes and sigh deeply at the frenzy of coverage about Donald Trump, the media scrum about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and the speculation about whether Joe Biden will enter the presidential race. Instead, they argue, one should simply pay attention to the fundamentals and not worry about campaigns, debates, events, or even, seemingly, the identities of the candidates….

The problem with that approach is, when it comes to primaries, the fundamentals are not nearly as well understood or as predictive as they are in general elections….

Well, in one contest, according to the averages, there is a candidate comfortably at the top of the national polls of what is universally considered to be a strong field of 16 candidates that includes four sitting U.S. senators and four sitting governors, as well as former governors from two of out of the three largest states in the country. This candidate enjoys a 15 percentage point lead over the second-place contestant in national polls (and together they are the only candidates with double-digit support)….

In the other contest, according to, the leading candidate has a similarly sized lead, 18 percentage points—but in a field that is considerably smaller and that includes one sitting U.S. senator…  as well as three former officeholders…. Looking at’s aggregation, the national lead is about half of what it was at the start of the summer, with a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showing a drop of 20 percentage points in support. According to the average, this candidate is trailing in New Hampshire and leading in Iowa (with both races within the margin of error). But a CBS News/YouGov poll yesterday also showed this candidate trailing in Iowa.

So, what is the conventional wisdom from the cool analytical kids and the old guard of political pundits? It turns out that it is exactly the same. They both say that the first candidate has virtually no chance at the nomination and the second remains the presumptive nominee.

The two candidates described are obviously businessman Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the article goes on to note that whether these analysts are correct or not, it’s clear they aren’t relying on raw numbers alone but instead have incorporated some degree of “instinct” to tell them that Trump simply isn’t a viable contender for the Republican nomination while Clinton remains far and away the frontrunner in the Democratic contest, despite what the numbers alone are suggesting.

The Wall Street Journal has another piece this morning that may have a few analysts reviewing their instincts, however, at least regarding Trump. The article explains that Trump’s position in the nomination fight looks different than that of other past outsiders, particularly the 2012 contest:

The Republican electorate seems much more unsettled than in 2012, suggesting a more difficult path for this cycle’s set of establishment candidates. Three polling measures show how different the 2016 cycle is from 2012.

To [begin] with, Donald Trump has spent more days leading the Republican presidential field than did any of Romney’s challengers in 2012.

That’s one sign of how strong the hunger is among Republicans this year for a nontraditional candidate. Here’s another: Neither the first- nor the second-place spot in national polls is held by an establishment candidate.

A third trend that marks 2016 as different from the last campaign: Establishment candidates have fallen to single-digit support in national polls….

The story suggests that at least at the beginning of the race there were two “establishment” candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio:

The nontraditional candidates, Messrs. Trump and [retired neurosurgeon Ben] Carson, may not hold their leading position as the campaign continues. But their success so far suggests that Mr. Bush and other candidates from the GOP’s establishment wing could have a tougher time than did Mr. Romney gaining momentum.

While Trump’s challenge to the so-called establishment candidates looks more substantial than similar challenges in the past, one of those “old guard” political pundits, Stu Rothenberg over at Roll Call, doesn’t seem to think Clinton’s slide will ultimately mean anything:

Clinton’s favorable ratings [among Democrats] have fallen from 88 percent in the June Iowa poll to 77 percent in August, and that number is even 10 points lower in the NBC News/Marist survey. Again, given the coverage she has received, the drop is understandable.

Still, Clinton is widely liked by Democrats, particularly in the minority community, and she still has many advantages over Sanders, including her gender, her fundraising and organization, and the potentially historic nature of her nomination and possible election….

It is Clinton’s general election prospects that have taken a bigger hit, assuming she faces a mainstream Republican opponent who can limit the party’s losses among Hispanics and Asian-Americans….

The past few months have been terrible for Clinton. Everyone knows that, even her supporters. And things could get worse before they get better. But even with her problems, she remains the favorite for her party’s nomination and a formidable contender for November of 2016.

Finally, looking ahead at that general election matchup and those “fundamentals” that were mentioned in the Bloomberg Politics piece and “formidable” Clinton, Marc Ambinder at offers some insight on what information the number-crunchers will be looking for as November 2016 draws closer:

In a different context, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called them the “known unknowns,” the critical questions that must be answered in order to better forecast the results of a campaign. His campaign was a war; ours is war by other means….

We know we don’t know enough to reliably predict the general election.

Here are five of those known unknowns. When we can answer these questions, the crystal ball will begin to clear.

The five factors Ambinder cites are:

  1. How the economy is really doing, primarily using the unemployment rate and income growth for key voting blocs;
  2. Whether foreign affairs is a significant factor in voters’ minds;
  3. Can the Democratic nominee create a base of support capable of matching Obama’s? Ambinder presumes the nominee will be Clinton and suggests single women might be that base.
  4. Which side is more enthused?
  5. Which side do voters believe will win?

The sort of analysis Ambinder and others do seek to predict, largely without regard to polls and candidate strengths and weaknesses, which party will win the White House in 2016. But the identity of the nominees will quite likely determine several of these metrics – meaning that who wins the presidency will ultimately depend on who the candidates are.