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What History Teaches Us About Trump's Lead in Polls

For now, Donald Trump has kept his frontrunner state intact, but what does it matter?
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For now, Donald Trump continues to be the “Teflon Don” of the 2016 presidential race, with very early indicators showing his frontrunner status is still intact after the first GOP debate and his ensuing battle with Fox News host Megyn Kelly.

But just how much does it matter?

Early leads in presidential primary polls have been red herrings when it comes to predicting the long-term success of a campaign in recent elections.

Then Texas Gov. Rick Perry had a commanding 15-point lead in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll released almost exactly four years ago. Perry’s star faded precipitously after that, and he has since launched a second White House bid that has already run into problems. NBC News confirmed Monday that Perry had recently suspended pay for campaign staff amidst fundraising troubles.

The August 2011 poll also ranked former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who went on to win 11 states during the 2012 GOP primaries, at a meager three percent. Recent polls show Santorum similarly near the bottom of the pack in his second run.

Going back eight years ago, an early September 2007 NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll had former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani leading the GOP presidential field at 32 percent, followed by former Tennessee senator turned actor Fred Thompson at 26 percent.

“Being the early leader directs all the press attention to you, which can be a good thing, or can be a very bad thing if you’re not ready for it,” said a Republican strategist who advised Thompson's campaign in 2008. “Thompson was unready for a lot of the national press attention and unwilling to do the work that turned potential support into actual votes.”

It’s not just the early leaders who are susceptible to dramatic downfalls because of a lack of preparedness. Republican businessman Herman Cain shot to the top of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in October 2011. Sexual harassment allegations and an alleged affair ended his campaign just two months later.

And it’s a trend that is not just confined to Republicans. The September 2007 poll had New York Sen. Hillary Clinton leading Illinois Sen. Barack Obama 44 percent to 23 percent.

That political history has not been lost on the low-polling candidates, who have used them to defend their standing in the race.

“Eight years ago, Rudy Giuliani was leading the pack and everyone was writing John McCain's political obituary,” Santorum communications director Matt Beynon said after the 2012 Iowa caucus winner was left out of the prime-time debate. “National polls are meaningless in August.”

John Sides, an associate professor at George Washington University, argues that early polling rarely is useful when trying to predict a nominee. His research has found that poll respondents have little likelihood of correctly choosing election outcomes more than 300 days before Election Day.

"When you interrupt someone during their day and you give them a long list of candidates to choose from, familiarity is important."

Instead, he said, it’s more likely a matter of people picking names they have heard -- in Trump’s case, a former reality TV star.

“Name ID is important,” Sides said. “When you interrupt someone during their day and you give them a long list of candidates to choose from, familiarity is important.”

Pollsters say the early numbers are meant to provide a snapshot of the race, not to predict the future. And the attention Trump has gotten in the early months may explain how he has remained the “Teflon man” of the 2016 presidential cycle. The media’s focus on Trump means there is less focus on the other candidates, halting their attempts to boost their own name recognition.

The volatility of past polling is why many have been waiting for Trump’s balloon to pop, especially in recent days. As the frontrunner, Trump drew most of the focus during the first GOP presidential debate last week in Cleveland, Ohio. The real-estate mogul initially said the questions to him were unfair, but his criticisms escalated after that.

In a media appearance Friday, Trump said Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever" while questioning him. The comment was perceived by many to be a reference to menstruation, though Trump has denied that.

The remark was enough to get influential conservative Erik Erikson to disinvite Trump from his event last weekend. Though the outrage does not yet seemed to have had much impact on his numbers. According to the latest NBC News Online Poll conducted by SurveyMonkey, Trump is still on top of the GOP field with support from 23 percent of Republicans. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday also showed Trump to be in the lead, and a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll showed him first in New Hampshire.

“The volume of attention Trump has gotten -- speaking the most at the debate and then sucking up all the oxygen with his ensuing fight with Fox News,” Sides said, “It’s tough for even top candidates like Jeb Bush or Scott Walker to break through.”

-- NBC’s Brooke Brower contributed to this report.