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May 19, 2014 1:22 PM Another Presidential Poll to Ignore

By Jonathan Bernstein

A Pew Research Center poll finds that, compared with 2008, a lot more Americans view experience as a governor as the best preparation for the White House; fewer see service in Congress as a “top positive” for a candidate.

Ignore those polls!

I can guarantee that if Democrats wind up nominating Hillary Clinton in 2016, half the country will suddenly say that service as secretary of state is the best preparation for the presidency. If Republicans nominate Marco Rubio, the other half of the country is going to claim that time in the state legislature followed by a short stint in the U.S. Senate is the best grooming for the Oval Office — never mind that it will be the polar opposite half of the nation from those who expressed that belief in 2008, when Barack Obama was the Democratic candidate.

At this point of the presidential cycle, it’s possible this kind of question might yield a bit of insight, even if it’s just about the default answer people give. But it’s unlikely that those answers reflect deeply held beliefs, and it’s even less likely that the answers will have any predictive value for nomination politics. And it’s utterly implausible that such findings will tell us anything about the general election.

I wouldn’t say there’s nothing to this kind of polling: for example, it is interesting that many people say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist. On the other hand, it was easy to find Republicans who claimed they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate. Yet almost all Republicans ended up voting for Mitt Romney in the general election, and religion didn’t seem to matter much even for the nomination.

I’m going to keep repeating this whenever these questions show up in polls and reporters take the answers at face value: Individual voters aren’t very good at explaining why they voted the way they did. They are even worse at predicting why they will vote the way they will. That is true about their feelings about candidate experience, as measured in this Pew poll; it’s also true for questions of policy. It’s true across the board.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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