National Journal Column: The only reason Trump seems strong right now: Polls

Thursday, March 7th, 2024

My reaction to the South Carolina Republican primary results was a bit of surprise. Even though it is former Gov. Nikki Haley’s home state, and even though it was an open primary in which independents and Democrats could cross over to vote, I expected former President Trump’s margin to be larger. Honestly, I paid no attention to polls of the race—polls are notoriously bad at measuring the size of blowouts—so this was based on my assumptions about Trump’s strength.

Turns out, I assumed he was stronger than he is. Of course, Haley has absolutely no path to winning the nomination. Still, the fact that she can pull 40 percent support away from Trump, who is essentially an incumbent, reveals some weakness in Trump’s appeal. The bigger question is why Trump seems to be viewed as so strong. As G. Elliott Morris wrote on South Carolina Primary Night, if President Biden were putting up those numbers in his own primary, everyone would be freaking out about how weak he is.

Yet while Biden notches much larger win margins, most of the discussions focus on his weaknesses, not Trump’s. General-election polls are the driving factor in these discussions—for the last couple of months, most of them show Trump leading Biden by 1 to 4 percentage points. Those leads are narrow, and often within the poll’s margin of error, but the findings are relatively consistent.

In a normal election year with truly competitive primaries, general-election polls wouldn’t get a lot of attention. They also wouldn’t get a lot of attention if Biden were leading—the incumbent leading just isn’t that interesting of a story. But with little else to focus on, and the click value of Trump leading, these early polls are getting a lot of attention. That’s despite the fact that we know some voters haven’t fully decided how they’ll vote, and that they aren’t even paying that much attention yet. We also know that historically, polls early in an election year tend to be several percentage points off from the eventual outcome.

Primary results show far less backlash to Biden than to Trump. Despite criticism of Biden for running for reelection at his age, a cursory challenge from Rep. Dean Phillips, and various efforts to show dissatisfaction with Biden, including a push to vote “uncommitted” in the Michigan primary, the president has thus far looked like a strong incumbent judging from vote tallies.

Trump—not a true incumbent but the de facto leader of his party—has faced a lot of competition, and his wins have been by much smaller margins. And in elections across the last two years, Democrats have performed better than expected. Even though the November 2024 election will have bigger turnout than most of these, Democrats could have a structural advantage.

How does a political commentator—or simply a political watcher—negotiate these incongruent messages to get an accurate view of the race? First, by admitting there are conflicting messages coming in from different sources of information. There’s no getting around the fact that polls currently point to a Trump advantage, but you also can’t ignore what election results are telling us. At the same time, neither are historically predictive of the November result.

If I had to choose, though, I would put slightly more stock into what we’re seeing when people actually vote and lean toward Trump being weaker than he’s being portrayed right now. There are numerous arguments to the contrary, including noting that Trump won in 2016 after a hotly contested primary. But 2016 was an open contest; in 2024, Trump is the Republican establishment, rather than the rogue force he was eight years ago.

Plus, we have to acknowledge the unreliability of polls this far out, particularly when we expect a contest to be close—and this one likely will be. At best, polls have a margin of error of a few percentage points, and when the election will likely be within a few percentage points, well, that’s not super useful. How people are actually voting is concrete information, and even though it doesn’t tell us how a large-turnout general election will go, it is more precise than polls are right now.

The question is, of course, when should we start paying more attention to polls? In general, that’s after both parties have had their conventions and we’re headed into September. This time frame is when more average voters will start paying attention, candidates will be advertising and campaigning in earnest, and people who might have backed away from their party’s candidate for whatever reason will come back “home” to their party. It’s also when we’ll have a much better idea of what the possible independent and third-party candidate situation looks like; right now we have no idea.

Weekly column written by Vice President Natalie Jackson for National Journal.

This column was originally published on February 27, 2024, on and is owned by and licensed from National Journal Group LLC.