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Politics Rewind: Family Baggage And Fuzzy Math

Likely 2016 hopeful Jeb Bush reportedly told a closed-door crowd his brother, former President George W. Bush, is one of his top foreign policy advisers.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Likely 2016 hopeful Jeb Bush reportedly told a closed-door crowd his brother, former President George W. Bush, is one of his top foreign policy advisers.

We're debuting our weekly "Politics Rewind" today – what we learned this week in politics, why it mattered and where it fits in. Here are five things we noticed this week:

1. Oh, brother! Jeb Bush is not doing a great job separating himself from George W

If you're the former Florida governor trying to distance yourself from your brother, former President George W. Bush, and his controversial actions in Iraq, pretty much the last thing you needed to do was tell a crowd he's one of your top foreign policy advisers. Yet that's exactly what the likely 2016 hopeful did behind closed doors, according to a CNN report. The Bush team insists he was talking strictly about Israel. And while there are parts of his brother's coalition that the younger Bush certainly needs, if the headline is "Jeb: George W. Bush is a top foreign policy adviser" — it's not a good day.

2. Diversity won't save Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson

The GOP presidential field not only doubled in size this week but also got its first female candidate and first African-American candidate. For a party that badly needs to shake its "white male" image, both are positive signs, but that doesn't mean either is likely to win the nomination. Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, is in single digits in polling and faces a severe lack of name ID. Carson, a famed pediatric neurosurgeon, has a loyal and fervent following, but he has yet to prove he can build the type of sustaining campaign that can capitalize on that — while also staying away from gaffes that could sink him. Republicans' best hope for a nonwhite presidential nominee is still Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

3. Clinton herself still hasn't explained questionable foundation financing, but it's not hurting her — yet

The Democratic presidential front-runner's campaign reached a whole new level on Tuesday with the official release of the controversial book Clinton Cash. Debuting an entire section of the campaign website called "The Briefing" to tamp down claims that foreign donations to the family foundation influenced her time at the State Department, her team largely bypassed the traditional media channels and took the message directly to voters. It's a smart strategy that works for now, but it still doesn't mean Clinton herself won't have to answer questions herself about those finances at some point.

Amid the revelations about the foundation's finances and her use of a private email server while at the State Department, her polling numbers have been mixed. Since March, Clinton's unfavorable rating has risen 6 percentage points while those who said she was honest and straightforward has dropped 13 points in a year, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week. But a CBS News/New York Times poll showed 65 percent say she has strong leadership qualities, an uptick from a year ago, and a 48 percent plurality still says she is honest and trustworthy. Both polls showed her continuing to best potential GOP opponents.

4. Christie still doesn't have a path

It's been a long, long time since there was any good news for the New Jersey governor. He's seen his onetime bright future rapidly fade amid the "Bridgegate" scandal, and he's close to being entirely written off as a serious GOP presidential candidate. No number proved that more than 3 — the percentage Christie took in the WMUR Granite State Poll this week in New Hampshire. That's down from 9 percent in February. He's hoping to rebound with visits and town halls this weekend and next week. But his self-imposed deadline of end of June to make a decision is approaching, and the trials of his two former allies in the bridge-closing scandal are set to begin at the beginning of July. Those aren't two headlines you want simultaneously.

5. Not all polls are created equal

The polls got it wrong — again! In the U.K., and Israel before that, pre-election national surveys missed the eventual outcome of those countries' elections. We've had our own high-profile examples in this country — the 2000 Florida election. Exit polls in 2004. Hillary Clinton and the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Eric Cantor. But don't confuse those polls abroad with polls in the U.S. If you ask the experts, they'll tell you polling in this country is and has been, for the most part, very accurate.

"It's like saying some restaurants are terrible. Well, some are," said Evans Witt, CEO of Princeton Survey Research Associates. "I think what happened in Great Britain was astonishing." In the U.S., though, "basically, well-done polls are good," Witt said, adding, "There are big cultural differences in polling between Great Britain and us."

Some key ones: The U.K. has seen major political shifts. It had been predominantly a two-party system, and that's not the case anymore. It's more of a multiparty system with lots of regional variation, making it difficult for pollsters to adjust. The problem in Israel, on the other hand, is there is almost no disclosure of polling methodology.

That doesn't mean U.S. polling doesn't have its issues. There are methodologies being used, like online surveys, that are not time tested, for example, and there's a proliferation of less expensive automated polling, which isn't allowed to call cellphones. "Are they bad?" Witt asked, "The answer is, 'Well, we don't know.' ... In this country, we're doing pretty well, we have a lot of bad polls, but we've always had a lot of bad polls." The difference now, though, is with an explosion of multimedia platforms, almost any pollster can get a poll out there. "They can be wrong," Witt said, "but the biggest problem is people overinterpret polls."

By the way, sometimes the polls get it surprisingly right. In Alberta, Canada, this week pundits didn't believe the polls showing a swing to the left. But, in the end, they got it right. "The industry as a whole needs to redeem itself, and I think they did here," pollster Frank Graves of Ekos Research said Wednesday.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politicsand is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.