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Poll Faults

This early in the presidential race, voters aren’t paying attention to differences between candidates. So how about the issues?

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You see it every time a new national presidential poll comes out: Pundits elbowing each other to decipher the new numbers and determine who’s beating who in the pre-primary primary (remember, barring early state dust-ups, nobody is voting until January, six months from now). But like a lot of what passes for media coverage of the presidential race, it’s mostly masturbatory.

Leaving aside their political pre-maturity, in terms of words ejaculated from the keypads of our pundit class, the truth is that if this was election time, the national polls would not matter much, particularly relative to the key state polls where each respective nomination will be determined. This early in the race, most voters aren’t paying enough attention to the differences between candidates because most aren’t being targeted by campaigns. If campaigns are only focusing on talking about issues and character in certain places, why is it so important that we measure the opinions of people who haven’t even been introduced to the candidates?

Eight years ago today, George W. Bush’s high standing in the polls was largely due to the fact that many of his supporters thought he was his father. Or you might argue that early national polling is a good way to determine if candidates are “electable”—Jonathan Chait puts a recent L.A. Times poll to that use. But if the country at large hasn’t met these candidates yet, how can we forecast what a race between them might be like?

To understand this phenomenon better, it would be instructive to take a trip down memory lane to the 2003 primaries. I remember a time (October 2003) when Howard Dean was considered “electable,” leading to the following analysis from a New Hampshire political observer: “I think Democrats want a winner at all costs, and [John] Kerry has underperformed in some Democratic primary voters’ view. They will go with whoever they think can beat Bush, and right now Dean has come across in a more clear and convincing fashion than Kerry. That doesn’t mean Kerry can’t do it, but so far they have found in Dean someone they feel confident in.” Even two months later, in December, Dean led nationally by 13 points.

And then what happened? Well, Dean’s lead, together with his $40 million evaporated in Iowa and New Hampshire. Primary voters had time to take a second look (expect second and even third looks in the current campaign, with all the time remaining) at the candidates. But perhaps most importantly, despite Dean’s lead nationally, he remained closer to the other candidates in Iowa, presaging his eventual meltdown.

And what were the results? Kerry got the momentum and wins in the next primaries, leaving him settled for the nomination just months later. At the time, Kerry called it, well, here’s what he had to say: “Do you like the surge? Are you ready to add more surge? Are you ready to make more surge, more surge? And are you ready to make more and more surge, a surprise on Monday?”

A diarist at MyDD puts all the numbers together, writing that “in late 2003 the Kerry campaign made a radical decision: it decided to close most of its New Hampshire campaign and bet everything on Iowa. It’s not an often-discussed decision, but it remains the best tactical decision I have ever seen a campaign make during the primaries. It was based on the fact that national polling is irrelevant before Iowa, and to some extent so is New Hampshire Polling.”

(Incidentally, in my research I stumbled across this blog post at Emerging Democratic Majority: “Bush’s First Sub-50 Approval Rating!” Those were the days, huh? Too bad the MSM was so late in getting the news…)

What does this all mean for the current race? For one, it means that members of the media might want to stop wasting our time with genuinely irrelevant horse-race coverage polling stories and attempt to explain some of the crushing problems that this administration will leave its successor to deal with and just what each candidate plans to do about them. Remember Iraq, for instance? Where do the candidates stand on implementing the program put forth by the Baker-Hamilton commission—at least those that will remain relevant once the denier-in-chief finally leaves office?

So who’s actually winning in the early primary states? In Iowa, it’s Edwards, Clinton, and then Obama on the Democratic side, and Giuliani, McCain, and Romney for the GOP. Both line-ups differ considerably from the national line-up, and both indicate that, despite emerging media narratives, there is still room for surprises down the road.

All this just reinforces the conventional wisdom about Iowa, which in this rare case is conventional because it’s true. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to choose a presidential candidate. Ken Baer, riffing off the Clinton Iowa fuss, wrote about the potential of a revamped national primary system. Clearly, the system we have now undercounts minorities and, well, anyone who doesn’t live in Iowa or New Hampshire. This is another matter worthy of more media attention, but not the modified horserace coverage that passes for it: New Hampshire in the lead, but Florida gaining.

So when you read an article like this one: “Poll: Clinton establishes sizable lead over Obama,” just remember my masturbation metaphor, and well, keep it to yourself…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, and his seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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