Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

“Momentum” and the Wannabe Physicists at Meet The Press

April 14th, 2016, 3:40pm by Sam Wang


In political reportage, the word “momentum” is nearly worthless. It gets used whenever a candidate wins a race or gets a favorable poll. As far as I can tell, a working definition of “momentum” is “I am excited about a noisy data point and will now give someone a lot of press coverage.” Remember John Dickerson and Ro-mentum? I guess discussing “momentum” levels the media playing field for trailing candidates, which is democratizing and maybe not all bad. Still, I cringe when the word is used.

Single primaries only tell what is special about that state. For example, on March 15th Governor John Kasich won his home state of Ohio. He went up in the polls – until March 22nd, when he lost Arizona and Utah, at which point his polling numbers peaked and started to come down.

Putting aside the incredible spectacle of the national Republican Party’s implosion, their nomination race has been remarkably uneventful in terms of voter sentiment. Compared with 2012, it’s been positively dull in terms of polling numbers. It’s easier to see if you set the HuffPollster feed to “Less Smoothing” – smoothing is bad for seeing turning points.

There have been as few as half a dozen turning points:

June 16th: Donald Trump declares his candidacy.
October 28th: Ted Cruz goes on the attack in the second GOP debate.
February 9th: John Kasich comes in #2 in New Hampshire.
March 1st: Super Tuesday, after which dropouts’ supporters go mainly to Cruz and Kasich, and a little bit for Trump.
March 15th: Kasich wins Ohio. Rubio drops out, with Cruz and Kasich gaining modestly.
March 22nd: Kasich loses in Arizona and Utah.

Looking at the data, we see a growth period for Cruz from October 28 to March 1, continuing until March 22nd – two weeks before the Wisconsin primary on April 5th. Kasich’s growth also ended on March 22nd. Since then, there’s been some noise, but no clear evidence of further movement.

The average of two surveys conducted since April 5th (CBS and YouGov/Economist) is Trump 47.5%, Cruz 27.0%, Kasich 18.0%. Of the 8 surveys started after March 22nd (a period of relative stability), it’s Trump 41.0±1.8%, Cruz 30.5±1.3%, Kasich 18.5±0.5% (median±est. SEM). This apparent 11.5-point lead for Trump will probably be smaller when it’s time to vote, since Cruz tends to do better than his polls. This may be due in part to support from the 10.0% undecideds that remain. Whatever the case, until more polls tell us otherwise, the race has been static for over three weeks.

Despite what was touted as the Republican Party’s deepest bench in generations, Donald Trump has encountered little serious opposition. Ted Cruz is the only real remaining threat, but his probability of securing a pledged delegate majority is less than 5%. Cruz’s only route to the nomination depends on whatever happens on the second ballot, when many delegates are free to vote as they like. This is why his campaign is working so hard to get their supporters into delegate slots.

Tags: 2016 Election · President

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