General Election Polls Don’t Matter Right Now

There has been a lot of hoopla about general election polls showing a Trump surge, with a concomitant lag effect for Clinton. Republicans are predictably excited, and Sanders supporters are jumping on them to argue that Sanders would be the better general election nominee.

But we honestly shouldn’t be paying much attention to general election head-to-head polling right now. Ironically, that sort of polling was more relevant a couple of months ago, when both Democrats and Republicans were each battling it out in primaries. Sanders has consistently led Clinton against all GOP comers, which is usually (though I believe wrongly) interpreted as a function of the lack of hits on him by conservative attack ads. Trump consistently underperformed his GOP rivals against both Clinton and Sanders, one of the leading reasons for the short-lived Never Trump movement. Be that as it may, looking at these polls made sense when both parties were in the midst of primary struggles.

But now it makes less sense. Trump is “surging” as he consolidates Republican voters in his camp. Many Sanders supporters are still aggrieved and unwilling to accept Clinton as the nominee just yet, but that will change once the rest of the primaries are done in a few short weeks–at which point Clinton will experience a similar “surge.”

Nor is there any particular hurry. California has a number of big primary elections coming up, and because of the ridiculous top-two primary system enacted by the voters there are several cases in which Democratic-leaning districts could wind up with two Republicans in the general election due to low Democratic turnout. The end of the Republican primary left many California Republicans crestfallen, as they had been hoping a continued Cruz-Trump battle would excite the GOP base and lead to higher GOP turnout. As long as it remains respectful, a continued spirited campaign between Clinton and Sanders will help increase June Democratic and progressive turnout. Nor should the Clinton camp worry: there’s a lot of time between June and November to consolidate intra-party support.

But it also means that doing general election polling between Clinton and Trump is functionally useless at this point. We’ll know more about how things actually stand in mid-July.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.