How to read Republican polls without feeling terror

Two recent polls, showing former President Trump in the lead among GOP candidates, illustrate the dangers of consuming too much public opinion at this stage.

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Some polls show former President Donald Trump leading other Republicans, but the 2024 primary season is still months away.

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Experts will advise you never to eat meat with cream sauce at a buffet; always to lock your car even when just dashing into the 7-Eleven for two minutes; and never to read national polls in the year before an election.

But there are coping mechanisms if you, like me, fail on the third.

Two recent polls illustrate the dangers of consuming too much public opinion at this stage. NBC’s poll shows former President Donald Trump has widened his lead over the field in the Republican primary contest since his latest indictment, with 51% now saying he’s their preferred candidate for the nomination, up from 46% in April.

That puts him 29 points ahead of Ron DeSantis, his nearest challenger, whose support dropped from 31% in April to 22% in June.

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Asked about Trump’s federal indictment, 63% say the charges give them “no real concerns at all,” while 14% report only “minor concerns.” But that isn’t even the most disturbing result.

That honor belongs to the question about what disturbs voters most. The question: “Does this issue give you major concerns, moderate concerns, minor concerns, or no real concerns?”

Option 1: “Joe Biden being re-elected and serving another four years as president” or Option 2: “Donald Trump being elected again and serving another four years as president.”

OK, inhale: 58% had major or moderate concerns about Trump, but once again, Biden had him beat, with 60% registering concerns.

Good God, what is wrong with people? Trump attempted a coup, endangered national security, exacerbated internal divisions, mishandled a health emergency causing thousands of needless deaths, dined with Nazis and is running on “terminating the Constitution.”

So, sure, kind of a toss-up between that and a normal president who has some policies we don’t like but who follows the law (with one exception that is being challenged in the courts) and appoints responsible adults to important posts.

Another poll from Morning Consult showed, for the first time since tracking began in December 2022, that in a head-to-head contest between Trump and Biden, Trump would win by three points.

So, aside from vodka or hemlock, what is the secret to assimilating this information?

One thing I keep in mind is that polls this far ahead don’t mean much. In June 2015, Jeb Bush had 19% to Trump’s 12%. In June 2007, Clinton led Obama 33% to 21%. Lesson: Voters are not that focused on presidential races this far out.

Another thing to bear in mind is that nominating contests are not conducted on a nationwide basis, as these polls are. They are state-by-state contests wherein the results from one contest influence the outcomes of later races. Momentum is real. Bandwagon effects are strong.

If Trump wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, the race for the nomination will probably be over. But if someone else wins one or both, or one non-Trump candidate wins Iowa and another takes New Hampshire, then it’s a jump ball.

Though Trump remains strong among Republican primary voters, there are definite cracks. The same NBC poll reports 29% of Republican registered voters say the GOP needs a new leader “with better personal behavior and a new approach,” and an additional 21% say “Donald Trump was a good president, but it’s time to consider other leaders.”

The party is thus divided roughly 50/50 on whether he ought to be the nominee. Of course, with the winner-take-most system the GOP employs, Trump could have more than enough support to ensure his nomination.

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Which brings us to the question of the indictments. Polls reflect what voters hear and most GOP voters have heard whataboutism. But this time, there are voices from within the GOP information bubble who are telling the truth.

Chris Christie is firing daily broadsides. Asa Hutchinson and Will Hurd, too. And even on Fox News, viewers have been exposed to former Trump stalwarts Bill Barr, Trey Gowdy, Karl Rove and Jonathan Turley saying the indictment is strong and Trump’s behavior is inexcusable. Elected Republicans like Don Bacon and even Freedom Caucus member Ken Buck have said they won’t support a convicted felon for president.

I know, I know, it’s such a low bar, but considering where we’ve been, it marks a significant change.

And even if Trump is nominated, a critical portion of Republican voters will either stay home or vote for the Democrat. We’ve seen this pattern in recent races. In 2022, Republican voters in key races gave less support to MAGA candidates than to traditional Republicans.

In Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Georgia and Arizona, Republicans split their votes, denying victories to Doug Mastriano, Don Bolduc, Herschel Walker and Kari Lake. In each of those crucial swing states, if Republican voters had delivered the percentage of votes to those candidates that they did to other Republicans on the ballot, the election-denying MAGA candidates would have won.

It’s going to be a stressful 18 months, but there are good reasons not to despair for the future of the country over today’s polls.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.

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