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Today's Hot Candidate: Scott Walker

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Let’s talk early-stage presidential primary polls. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has had something of a surge over the last week. What should we make of it? Is there any information to be squeezed out of these polls?

I’m tempted to say Ignore Those Polls! As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck showed during the last Republican presidential contest, polling surges reflect recent positive media coverage; they aren't predictions of future polling success (or, eventually, actual votes). Moreover, there’s a predictable cycle: A candidate who hasn’t been covered much gets positive publicity, spikes in the polls, earns a round of media scrutiny amounting to negative publicity, and the polling surge reverses.

So do those polls tell us nothing?

Here's a baseball analogy. A longtime bench player with a well-established hitting record gets to play for an injured player in April and has a great month. The smart answer is that his April surge is meaningless; the best prediction of how he’ll do the rest of the year is unchanged. But the smarter answer is that even though he’s still the same guy he was, the odds are pretty good that his playing time is going to increase, at least until he falls back to earth. He may even be able to keep the job all year even after he stops hitting because his team has released the most likely alternative.

In other words, Scott Walker now is still the Scott Walker of December … but the polling surge may have real effects, even if it isn’t “real.” If the spike convinces John Kasich, Mike Pence or Bobby Jindal to drop out, that alone would increase Walker’s chances for the nomination (quite a bit, if all three leave the race). It certainly will bring in money and other resources for Walker; those, in turn, could buy him further success and help him ride out whatever bad times might be ahead. To the extent party actors believe in his success, bandwagon effects are certainly possible, too.

What matters, too, is that Walker entered this surge as a viable candidate; he’s no Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich. To go back to the baseball analogy: He may be less of a scrub who gets a chance to play and has a hot month than a perfectly good hitter who gets a chance to play and has a hot month.

That doesn’t mean Walker is anywhere close to clinching the nomination or even becoming a finalist; Rick Perry was a viable candidate for 2012 and had a polling surge in 2011, but he managed to completely undercut it.

At the same time, Walker probably won’t be the last to have a polling surge during this cycle, but not all candidates get one. It’s quite possible that he now has an opportunity that Marco Rubio, for example, won't get.

So the latest polls tell us almost nothing about voters. Most people aren’t paying attention yet, which is why a bit of positive publicity for a candidate can shift polling quite a bit. Voters aren’t reporting firm decisions; they’re just responding to what’s been in the news lately. If these early polls are important, it is only because of the way the people who pay close attention to Republican Party politics react to them. That’s the real thing to watch, going forward.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net