While in the rest of the world this is the season when news cycles run slowly, in the US it appears that the speed has been turned up. Every day a new poll comes out that shows who is leading the Republican pack and who is at the bottom, how many percentage points Hillary Clinton has lost during the last couple of days, and if Carly Fiorina and Jim Webb are showing up in the stats at all. More detailed data show the percentages of potential Republican voters who say they would never vote for Donald Trump and of registered Democrats who don’t find Hillary Clinton trustworthy. For those who are interested in the longer term perspective there are the polls, state by state, that show how well Hillary Clinton would do against various Republican candidates in the general election. The commentators who are kept busy analyzing all that information primarily have their eyes on swing states like Florida and Ohio, and invariably run into trouble trying to put an ideal ticket together, because what is perfect for Florida might not work in Ohio and vice versa. It is a new national pastime, and polling, speculating and forecasting has never been as intense as it is now.
There are many reasons for that intensity. First, the stakes are high. There is little chance that the Democrats will win majorities in either the House or the Senate, so for them holding on to the White House is vital. Second, the contrast between the visions of the two parties has not been so obvious in a long time. The Democrats have been pulled to the left in their criticism of social inequality and racial discrimination, respectively voiced by Elizabeth Warren and Al Sharpton. The Republicans have been pulled to the right by the Tea Party, lost the battle over gay marriage, won’t be able to stop the Iran deal, and will have to fold in their fight against the Affordable Care Act if the Democratic candidate comes to occupy the presidency. Third, next to the political contrast there is the contrast in the appearances of the campaign processes. On the Democratic side a limited number of candidates is having a civilized debate about policy issues, while on the Republican side sixteen candidates are performing in a freak show in which national carnival barker Donald Trump makes the most noise and inclusive policies the GOP leadership would like to pursue are being trashed.
And then there is the difference between the electorates. Politically conscious Democrats understand that their candidate must win to secure an agenda that plays out in the future, and will show a maximal effort in getting their own to the polling stations. A significant part of the Republican electorate primarily cares about getting even, and is therefore more focused on the past than on the future. Elections, however, don’t change the past, and that may affect the Republican turnout.
The two wildcards in the race are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Her eventual strength will depend on how she weathers Republican attacks dealing with the destruction of a large number of her emails, and while nobody expects Trump to become the Republican candidate he has come farther than most pundits predicted, and might very well mess up the Republican campaign for a considerable amount of time.
In the end, the only numbers that will really tell us something are the results of polls taken close to the election, when all nominated candidates, including possibly a third party candidate Trump, are known. And even then it will be good to remember that lately, around the world, polls have mostly been wrong.