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Why 2024 offers an exception to the presidential polling rule

As a rule, presidential polling, two years before the election, is of dubious reliability. The newest 2024 data, however, offers an important exception.


Every four years, shortly after midterm elections, pollsters start releasing survey data on the presidential election that’s still two years away. And every time that happens, folks like me explain why those polls should be largely ignored.

Once in a great while, however, an exception comes along.

For longtime readers, the general thesis might seem familiar. In fact, we discussed it exactly eight years ago this week, and then again four years ago this week. The coverage from the time was, and still is, accurate: Presidential polling two years from Election Day is notoriously unreliable in telling us which candidates are in serious contention for the White House.

At roughly this point in the 2000 cycle, Elizabeth Dole and Dan Quayle were seen as top-tier Republican contenders. At roughly this point in the 2004 cycle, Joe Lieberman led most national Democratic polls. At roughly this point in the 2008 cycle, Hillary Clinton was practically a lock for the Democratic nomination, and Rudy Giuliani enjoyed big leads in nearly all national GOP polling.

At roughly this point in the 2016 cycle, Donald Trump was so far from the GOP’s radar that he wasn’t even included in surveys.

The point, of course, is that two years is practically a lifetime in presidential polling, and political conditions invariably change — usually several times — between election days. Trying to predict who will excel in a White House race, 23 months in advance, is folly. It’s why I keep making the case to take these kinds of surveys with a grain of salt.

At least, that is, most of the time. Politico reported yesterday:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis edged out former President Donald Trump in a new Wall Street Journal poll of primary voters that pits the two Republicans against each other as top contenders for the GOP nomination in 2024. Fifty-two percent of likely GOP primary voters in the poll preferred DeSantis, compared to the 38 percent who favored Trump in a hypothetical primary race for the Republican nomination.

This comes on the heels of a national USA Today/Suffolk University poll, which also found discouraging data for Donald Trump: “In July, 60% of Republicans wanted Trump to run again. In October, that number had dipped to 56%. Now it has fallen to 47%, an almost-even split with the 45% who don’t want him to run for a third time.”

The same report added by double digits, 56% to 33%, Republican voters prefer DeSantis over Trump.

If the general rule is that these polls tell us very little about what’s likely to happen, why make an exception in this instance? Because the current circumstances are unique: Since the dawn of the polling era, we’ve never had someone run for president, win, then lose, then announce plans to seek a second, non-consecutive term.

If Trump were in a strong political position, beloved by his party’s core supporters, we’d expect to see him dominating in polls like these. No one else, especially unannounced prospective candidates, should be anywhere close.

And yet, here we are, seeing independent data from credible polling outlets, showing Trump struggling — badly.

This isn’t a prediction that the Republican will necessarily lose, but there’s no denying the fact that the launch of his 2024 candidacy has been a disaster, and he’s confronting a political problem he appears ill-equipped to fix.