Move over Nate Silver. There’s a new predictor in town, and his name is Matt Drudge.
Silver, the statistician extraordinaire who has quite a reputation for using hard data to accurately predict the winners of political campaigns, declared last year that Donald Trump only had about a 5 percent chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination. He could, of course, still end up being right.
Silver, of course, is not the only one who thought that Trump had virtually no chance of winning the GOP race. Pollsters, strategists, and commentators from left to right have dismissed Trump’s chances of winning the nomination based on the conventional criteria for predicting it, such as polling, endorsements, political resume, and other traditional indicators of winning a party’s nomination.
One indicator that none of the experts have been looking to in their predictions or analysis is something that’s relatively new. It’s existed in previous campaigns, but it has distinguished itself significantly this year by being perhaps the most consistent indicator of how determined Trump’s supporters are to stick with him. It’s the unscientific online poll of readers on The Drudge Report. Trump has dominated the Drudge online poll that has been taken after every televised debate, and, naturally, he loves boasting about it.
Trump pulled out of last night's debate in a dispute with Fox News, so while Drudge couldn't ask who won the debate, he did survey his readers on who they were supporting for president. The winner? Still Trump, in a landslide. As of early this morning, with some 355,000 votes cast, He earned 62 percent of the vote, with Cruz a distant second at 17 percent, then Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, both with just under 7 percent.
Those who might argue -- or hope -- that the Trump fever will break because of the fight with Fox might want to take notice of those, yes, unscientific results. Pundits have predicted Trump’s demise time and again over the last six months. First it was his comments about John McCain’s war record. Then it was his clash with Megyn Kelly about his treatment of women, followed by his remarks about blood coming out of her eyes. There was the Muslim travel ban, the tepid performance in the second debate, some nasty words for Carly Fiorina during a debate, and then another debate where he did not seem to understand the nuclear triad. Every outrageous statement has prompted analysts to project that the next professional polls will finally show Trump’s support is softening. Except that his lead only grows. His support doesn’t decline, and every Drudge poll reflects that -- and then the real polls follow a few days later with confirmation that the businessman is still the GOP front-runner.
Again, the Drudge polls are immediate and unscientific. Anyone can participate. They're not weighted for demographic balance, one person might vote multiple times from different computers, or their phone. It's a snapshot of one piece of the conservative base. They might remind some of an online version of the 1936 survey that changed polling forever: the Literary Digest calling the presidential election for Alf Landon over Franklin Roosevelt, and getting it horribly wrong because their self-selected audience did not accurately reflect the country.
But this isn't about who would win in November between Trump and Hillary. An online poll on a site beloved by conservatives would never accurately reflect that. But as a measure of fervor within a primary, it captures something real about the passion and the intensity of Trump's support among the base. The Iowa caucus, in many ways, will be the test of what Trump has built: Does he have a coalition which will turn out to back him, or is it an angry Internet-based coalition willing to vote online but not at the real polls?
Last month, I wrote about what I saw as Drudge’s support for Trump’s campaign. Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast noticed the same thing. But here's something else interesting: While Donald Trump garners the lion's share of Drudge readers’ support, he isn’t the only candidate who is resonating with that loyal audience. In the only Drudge online poll to include all of the presidential candidates in both parties, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders placed second, with Ted Cruz a distant third, and the rest of the field far behind. Over 1.1 million Drudge Report readers voted in that poll. That suggests that the Drudge poll has a wider-ranging base and more unpredictable politics than one might expect.
In a year when the emotions of anger and frustration with the political establishment are fueling the campaigns of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the intensity of that emotion can be hard for the traditional statisticians to measure. Silver and the other experts have all of the data and analytics down pat. What they have a harder time measuring is emotion. We see the way those campaigns are connecting with voters on an emotional level by the size of the crowds they are drawing at rallies, but even that, of course, is unscientific. Trump and Sanders, after all, put on a good show. Who wouldn't want to check that out if it came to your New Hampshire or Iowa town?
But our vote for president is different from any other vote we cast, perhaps even more so this election cycle. It’s more emotional and less analytical than any other vote. It’s the gut check vote. Who do you connect with on a personal level? Remember, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama dispatched their opponents with hope, and George W. Bush was compassionate. Those things hit voters on a emotional level, not an analytical one. That’s a connection to the heart, not the head.
Both the Trump and the Sanders campaign are successfully channelling anger and fear into solid, unwavering support while offering up a good dose of hope, too. Trump vows to “make America great again” and Sanders pledges to deliver “a future to believe in.” Both campaigns are successful at making a personal connection on an emotional level, and that is reflected in their performance in the Drudge poll. It might not be scientific, but it could very well be the most accurate measure of the intangible “heart connection.”
The ultimate measurement of any candidate’s support comes in the form of real votes cast by real voters. Trump’s dominance in the GOP primary, measured with traditional polls and the Drudge polls, looks too strong for any of his opponents to overcome, while Sanders appears to have a much tougher challenge on the Democratic side. Starting Monday, we will learn if these emotional connections -- and online votes -- translate into real support.