Let me start this commentary by saying I've never met a presidential poll I've trusted.
Their results fluctuate wildly during the drawn-out primary campaigns, and all too often Poll A and Poll B will yield very different outcomes even after questioning similar groups.
A perfect example of the erratic nature of the polls is the fact that just before I wrote this column, a fresh report was published showing Jeb Bush jumping into second place in New Hampshire's GOP primary race. Yes, that Jeb. Somehow, a candidate who's languished around 5 percent in previous Granite State polls shot, almost overnight, to 18 percent.
How am I supposed to believe that?
The most surprising thing about primary polls is that so many people are already making bold (and I mean B-O-L-D) predictions based off them. For instance, a friend of mine texted me earlier this week, asking if I'd support Donald Trump "when" he gets the Republican nomination. My response: "Brakes. Pump them."
I've already swung and missed on a couple of predictions this primary season (thanks, Joe Biden), but I'm sticking to my guns that we won't get a clear picture of the GOP nomination landscape until the morning after Super Tuesday March 1). Only then will we have enough actual votes to accurately hypothesize over.
That lengthy qualifier given, if I were the type of person who puts an inordinate amount of stock in early poll results, I'd be keeping an eye on candidates 4 through 12 as much as I'd be watching the three Republican front-runners. Why? Because beyond Trump, Cruz and Rubio, support for the remainder of the field trails off steeply. And as these hopefuls start dropping out after Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the diaspora of their supporters will influence the race mightily. But the question is, how exactly will that tail wag the dog?
Let's presume that current polling truly is indicative of primary voting preferences. According to Real Clear Politics' most recent average of national polling data, Donald Trump commands a sizable lead over his closest rival, Ted Cruz. Then comes Marco Rubio trailed by a swarm of long-shot candidates, each with single-digit support. If you add all those single-digits up, though, it totals 26 percent of the electorate, more than enough to stand the campaigns on their heads.
There's no way we can assume that when, say, Carly Fiorina folds her tent all of her supporters (2 percent of the GOP electorate) will run en masse to a single remaining candidate. However, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to assume that the general profile of her supporters will be drawn more strongly to one in particular. Which one? Well, that's the interesting part. Fiorina has an establishment appeal, but would her defectors prefer a guy like Rubio who's doing so-so in the polls, or Jeb Bush, a more familiar fellow whose Right to Rise PAC has vaults full of cash to dump into the race?
We could play this game all day. Where will Chris Christie's moderate 4 percent go? What about Huckabee's evangelical 2 percent and change? Ben Carson is polling at more than 8 percent, and though that puts him in fourth place, his nomination chances are more precarious than ever. His potential demise alone could reshape the primaries.
At this point, you can't comment about the race without including a "What if?" or a "How about?" As easy as it is to look at the front-runners when seeking answers to those questions, it's equally as important to pay attention to the rest of the pack. While none of them stand a great chance of winning, each will leave their imprint on the race.
David Allen Martin is a syndicated columnist who writes from Chattanooga. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.