The Reliability and Relevance of Head-to-Head Polling in the Aftermath of Super Tuesday

In the democratic primaries, one of Hillary Clinton’s biggest advantages over Bernie Sanders is her electability. While supporters of Bernie Sanders enthusiastically support his progressive values, these primary voters do not represent the more moderate American constituency. Clinton’s more moderate views and her lack of association with the term ‘socialist’ help make the case that she is a more electable candidate for November.


To counter this argument, the Sanders Campaign often replies that Sanders performs much better than Clinton in head-to-head match-ups with Republican candidates. Using poll data such as Quinnipiac University’s latest polls released on February 18, the Sanders Campaign makes their own case for greater electability:




In a similar vein, many now predict that Donald Trump, in light of his growing number of delegates, has a definite shot at the Republican nomination. Nevertheless, many have argued since the beginning of his campaign that he would be an unelectable candidate in a general election. His lack of stable platform, scandalous past as a philanderer and as a businessman, and his absurd demeanor as a candidate all pointed to his inevitable failure. But after his sweeping victory on Super Tuesday, RealClearPolitics head-to-head polls place him only 3 points behind Clinton, which is within the margin of error of most polls included.

March 1

This is part of the newest set of polls by CNN/ORC conducted on February 24-27, which continue these general trends where Trump narrowly loses to Clinton, Clinton loses to other republican candidates, and all republican candidates lose to Sanders.




But how reliable are these polls? In the case of two relatively extreme candidates like Trump and Sanders, this polling result is understandable. However, it is interesting that Trump would beat Clinton or that Sanders would beat a more moderate Republican like Kasich. If the virtual sweep of Richard Nixon against George McGovern in the 1972 Presidential Election serves as any indication, it could be a disaster if Sanders were the Democratic nominee.


Though the race is now well underway, and Super Tuesday’s results narrow the field even more, Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight argues that head-to-head polling is unreliable before the conventions. He claims the margin of error is too high, and the race still too volatile for the results to have any real weight. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight addressed this theme of volatility in his analysis of polling accuracy in the 2012 election. A week before the election, Silver even claims there is a certain amount of “luck” to polling. Although polls tend to gradually become more accurate, 2012 had extremely volatile polls that quickly changed within days:



Relevance: Super Tuesday in Context


Looking at Super Tuesday in the context of the nomination, in both the 2012 and 2008 elections the candidate that won the most states for their respective parties went on to win the nomination. In 2012, the Democratic party was uncontested because President Obama was the incumbent. However, on the Republican side Mitt Romney six out of ten states and 136 more delegates than the closest candidate in Rick Santorum.

Rep primary


2008 was the only time since the Bush – Gore election that neither party had an incumbent president, therefore it is most reflective of the current political context. At this stage in 2008 the races were still close, but the candidates that ultimately went on to win the nomination – Barack Obama and John McCain – had won their respective Super Tuesdays.

dem prim

rep prim 2


Looking at recent presidential elections illuminates the importance of Super Tuesday for garnering a party nomination. Any head-to-head polls that do not have Clinton or Trump could very well be irrelevant.


Looking Ahead:

Super Tuesday.png

In the aftermath of Super Tuesday, the path forward to securing the Republican presidential nomination appears very challenging for those candidates not named Donald Trump. With Trump taking home the majority of delegates, he stands in firm position as the frontrunner with 319 delegates, 93 delegates ahead of second-place Ted Cruz. While those close to the Trump campaign feel he is the presumptive nominee, only voters will decide if Trump’s campaign can withstand the test of time, which leads to the following question: What needs to happen within the party for the Trump train to be derailed? With Ted Cruz securing victories on Tuesday in his home state of Texas, along with Oklahoma and Alaska, he is able to make a valid claim for being the legitimate alternative to Donald Trump. While he showed he can win, he is hardly beloved within the party. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, won Minnesota and came in a close second in Virginia. He has yet to show he can win decisively, however lots of the party’s big money has bet on him. If Cruz and Rubio continue to divide the anti-Trump vote, they may end up paving the way for Trump to secure the nomination.

If this is the case, we may have to ignore the unreliability of head-to-head polls and see how Clinton and Trump fare against each other.


Works cited:


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