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Why the latest polls are causing such a stir

What can we surmise based on the new national polls? Quite a bit, actually.
McCracken County residents vote at the Lang No. 2 precinct located at Murray State University, Paducah, Ky., Regional Campus, May 17, 2016. (Photo by Ryan Hermens/The Paducah Sun/AP)
McCracken County residents vote at the Lang No. 2 precinct located at Murray State University, Paducah, Ky., Regional Campus, May 17, 2016.
For months, much of the political world obsessed over primary and caucus polls, eager to know who the party's presumptive presidential nominees would be. Now that this phase of the process is nearing its end, general-election polls are all the rage -- though they probably shouldn't be.
Last week, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by six (47% to 41%), while a Fox News poll showed Trump ahead by three (45% to 42%). Over the weekend, two more major pollsters added some grist for the mill. First, there's the latest data from NBC News/Wall Street Journal:

Clinton, who remains a heavy favorite to win the Democrat nomination, leads the presumptive GOP nominee 46 percent to 43 percent among registered voters, a difference that is within the poll's margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.1 percentage points. In April, Clinton held an 11-point advantage over Trump, 50 percent to 39 percent, and had led him consistently by double digits since December.

And there's the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, which was also released yesterday:

In all, the survey foreshadows a hard-fought, competitive and negative general election. At this point, the two candidates are in a statistical dead heat among registered voters, with Trump favored by 46 percent and Clinton favored by 44 percent. That represents an 11-point shift toward the presumptive Republican nominee since March. Among all adults, Clinton holds a six-point lead (48 percent to 42 percent), down from 18 points in March.

All told, the polling averages compiled by Real Clear Politics show Trump ahead nationally by 0.2%, while the averages compiled by the Huffington Post point to Clinton up by 1.6%. (The latter, for what it's worth, tends to be a bit more comprehensive.)
So what can we surmise based on the most recent results? Quite a bit, actually.
1. The race really has tightened. I get the sense there were a fair number of observers who said, "There's simply no way the United States would consider a demagogic reality-show personality to be the Leader of the Free World." This became the basis for broadly held assumptions that Trump would never seriously compete for the presidency. Given the obvious fact that the race has tightened, at least for now, it's time to reassess those beliefs. The outcome is hardly assured.
2. It's not yet an apples-to-apples comparison. Now that Trump stands alone as the presumptive Republican nominee, GOP voters have largely rallied behind him, right on cue. Clinton, meanwhile, is still competing against Bernie Sanders, and Democratic divisions are more acute against the backdrop of increasing Republican unity. The better and more salient general-election comparisons will come once both major-party nominees are on the same intra-party footing.
3. Sanders' supporters have an important role to play. If, after the dust settles on the Democratic race, the Vermont senator's backers eventually prefer Clinton to Trump, Clinton will get a boost and her odds of victory will improve considerably. If they don't, and Sanders supporters balk at the more progressive candidate, the likelihood of a Trump presidency will grow to alarming heights.
4. The effect of the #NeverTrump campaign is negligible. The presumptive GOP nominee still has some detractors in his party, but the semi-organized campaign to rally anti-Trump Republicans appears to be a bust.
5. Don't overreact. It's May. The Democratic primaries won't wrap up for another three weeks. The conventions are two months away. Looking back, we can find May polling from previous election cycles in which Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, and Michael Dukakis all led before eventually losing.
In other words, if you're a die-hard Trump fan telling your friends, "OMG, he's going to win this thing!" or an enthusiastic Clinton supporter saying, "Time to panic!" you're both overreacting. These polls offer important snapshots of current public attitudes, and they help establish useful baselines for future comparisons, but it'll be a while before national polls start serving as the basis for credible predictions.