One might say there are three keys to evaluate polls in presidential candidates: average, average, and average. That is, don’t get caught up in any single poll, but rather rely on a running mean of polls, whose cumulative average is far closer to the truth of the electorate’s preference than any single survey.
But this tripartite rule is often ignored by the press and public, who care not only about the truth, but also about stories. As Adrienne LaFrance reminded Atlantic readers yesterday, every great story has a bit of movement. Rising is a good story (Horatio Alger), falling is a good story (King Lear), and rising-then-falling is a great story (Icarus).
Stasis is the worst story in the world, but unfortunately, the opinions of the electorate are not a crowd-sourced John Grisham novel. Barack Obama led John McCain and Mitt Romney for basically the entire 2008 and 2012 campaigns, but that didn’t stop the press from dramatizing every poll that showed a slight narrowing of the gap. Similarly Hillary Clinton has led Donald Trump by a comfortable margin for a while, but that doesn’t prevent the press from freaking out when news like today's McClatchy-Marist poll—which put Clinton's lead at a perilous 3 points—whets the media's appetite for a little Icarus narrative.