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Moore: The Frontrunner Myths

Topics: 2008 , ABC , David Moore , Gary Langer , Hillary Clinton , Rudy Giuliani , UNH Survey Center

Today's Guest Pollster article comes from David W. Moore, a senior fellow with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. He is a former vice president and senior editor with the Gallup Poll, where he worked for 13 years, and is the founder and former director of the UNH Survey Center. He manages the blogsite, Skeptical Pollster.com.

Eons ago, it seems, the press was touting Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton as the dominant frontrunners in their respective party presidential contests. The press was wrong in doing this, of course, but the pollsters told them that was true, and journalists believed. Now ABC's Gary Langer has taken a "Look Back" at the 2008 primary season, and once again endorsed the myth of the two frontrunners:

"It was going to be short and simple: Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani. Those were the long-ago and far-away days of initial preferences, when the two best-known candidates held commanding leads for their parties' presidential nominations. That it didn't end that way underscores an eternal truth of American politics: Campaigns matter."

I agree with Langer that campaigns matter, but disagree with his starting point. Indeed, that Giuliani was ever proclaimed the frontrunner is perhaps the most amazing myth of this whole campaign season.

The contest for delegates, as everyone knows, begins with voting in Iowa and continues from state to state, with election results in the early states inevitably affecting the results in later states. During the time that Giuliani enjoyed his so-called "commanding" frontrunner status (in the summer and fall of 2007), he was not the frontrunner in any of those early state contests - not in Iowa, not in New Hampshire, not in Michigan, not in Nevada, and not in South Carolina. He was the frontrunner in Florida, but if he didn't win any of the previous contests, it wasn't likely he would even be viable, much less the national frontrunner, by the time that primary was held.

This isn't just 20-20 hindsight.1 Right from the beginning, critics challenged the media pollsters' use of "national Republicans" and "national Democrats" as indicative of what the voters were thinking. In fact, Langer acknowledged the problem back in July 2007, and it's worth citing his response:

"A colleague here sent me a nice pointed challenge to our latest election poll yesterday: National surveys by themselves are 'close to meaningless,' he said, because they measure national preferences in what'll really be a series of state caucuses and primaries.

"It's a fair complaint, and a serious one - because it cuts to the heart of just what our new survey, and its multifarious brethren, are all about. It's true, of course, that a poll of current preferences nationally does not tell us about current preferences in Iowa, New Hampshire or anywhere else. Without knowing who's thriving in Iowa and New Hampshire, it's hard to predict who survives to South Carolina, much less who wins where on Mega Tuesday and wakes up with the crown on Feb. 6....

"We ask the horse race question in our national polls for context - not to predict the winner of a made-up national primary."

Langer is absolutely right - national polls of the party faithful don't predict state winners, and without an idea of who they might be, there's no way to tell who the nominee might be. By this reasoning, no matter how well Giuliani might have been faring in the national polls, that said nothing about how he might do in the state contests and in his effort to win the presidential nomination. So, on what grounds was he the frontrunner?

It turns out, apparently, that all along ABC was using the national numbers of what Langer calls the "made-up primary" not just "for context," but in fact to predict the winner of the actual nomination process. That's the only way in which Giuliani could be called a frontrunner.

Of course, ABC was not alone. Every major media polling organization reported results, at one time or another, based on that "made-up national primary." And in the summer and fall of 2007, they all reported that Giuliani was the dominant frontrunner - while ignoring that he trailed in all of the early state contests.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton was hardly the "solid" favorite as virtually every major news organization claimed. It's true the polls showed her leading in the several primary states after Iowa, but in this latter state she was never dominant. She trailed John Edwards for the first seven months of 2007, until she moved into a modest lead in the late summer and fall. But there were many undecided voters, and if she lost in Iowa, who could predict how she might fare elsewhere? Howard Dean's experience four years earlier, when his leading status in New Hampshire evaporated in the two-day period following his loss in the Iowa Caucuses, should have been a cautionary note for pollsters.

The reality was that in the summer and fall of 2007, there was no Republican frontrunner, and the Democratic frontrunner had only a tenuous lead. That so many pundits and politicians and members of the general public still think otherwise, because that's what the pollsters told us, should be the biggest embarrassment of the polling industry since Dewey beat Truman in 1948.


1 For my take on this matter last October 2007, see this post.

 

Comments
Uri:

A very good analysis.
It is interesting that there really few polls of the early primary states, and it is not clear why.

Or maybe the best solution is to abolish the current system and for a same-day primary. Imagine the general elections were carried the same way over five months, with Iowa pretty much deciding it.

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carl29:

Hello dear Uri; Are with us now? Come Home; You are more than welcome!!! Did you see how things are going with Rasmussen and Gallup.

GALLUP: "Although Wednesday night's interviewing showed no immediate bounce in national support for Obama versus McCain, Thursday night's results were quite favorable to Obama."

RASMUSSEN: "The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Friday shows what may be the beginning of a bounce for Barack Obama. Obama now attracts 45% of the vote while John McCain earns 40%."

Uri, come home. McSame doesn't have anything to offer to you and your family. We're waiting.

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Uri:

@carl29: I am not surprised that Obama is getting the bump. Timing helped him avoid Rezko issues, there's still a lot of excitement around him (remember the 2 hour papparazi-style stakeout where their meeting took place last night?), etc.

McCain, on the other hand, is missing in action. Actually, if I remember correctly he's touring the everglades alone today, and has produced a fairly crappy ad.

This year the Republicans have become democrats and the democrats have become republicans in terms of campaigning and media work. Obama's people actually know how to campaign, whereas the Republicans are in a self-destructive slumber. I expect to see Obama improving in the polls for a while, and getting a spike in the convention.

McCain is an easy candidate to beat in the sense that he's not affable like Huckabee or Bush, or clear like Romney. On the other hand, he has the appreciation of a lot of people, something W never had.

If the Obama campaign wants to push MCCain as Bush.3 it's a gamble. I think that a lot of people, including myself, don't buy it enough. Especially knowing that there's even less love between W and JMC than there is with Obama and Clinton.

My hope is that the family will just stay at home.

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Uri:

By the way, I wasn't clear about the "are you with us now" question. Why would something change overnight?

I don't like Obama any more than I used to. I trust him less, having just finished reading the transcript of his pandering at AIPAC and I'm eagerly waiting to see what he tells muslims in Detroit. I also don't think he has a solution for oil prices or our economic problems so don't even raise that specter.

I also don't have any more reasons to dislike McCain except for what I dislike about him already.

The polls of how other people vote are not going to have any impact on me, not that I can vote anyway, and I doubt they would have much impact on how my relatives vote, though I have little impact on them.

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carl29:

Actually, McCain is kind of creepy, especially while smiling. Did you see him on Tuesday with that green background? The best setting? He looked like an alien.

I sure think the Rep. will push the Rezko stuff against Obama just like they would push the Asian guy against Hillary. The point is that Rezko dealings were investigated by the FBI and Obama was never involved in anything. I know that by association that becomes an issue but there are not allegations against Obama. Do you believe that the FBI is protecting Obama? The FBI?

But let's go back to our issue. Do you still mad? Hasn't the healing started? Come on, how long is it going to take? A hundred years? Think about it Uri. Again, we are waiting for you with open arms.

P.S: I'm not being sarcastic.

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carl29:

Yes, I see you're mad :-(

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illinoisindie:

@URI
are you not a US citizen???

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Uri:

@illinoisindie: No, as I've clarified in most posts, I can't vote. I'm a permanent resident, not a citizen. I think I can legally contribute to candidates (haven't checked since I haven't contributed) but I can't vote, at least not on the national and state level.

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Uri:

@carl29: McCain was very creepy on Tuesday. With those insincere smiles and so on. Then again, Nixon won a presidency, and in fact nearly beat JFK in the popular vote so creepiness isn't everything even when you're running against an attractive charismatic young guy. Then again, Cheney (admittedly, a VP) was successfully on the ticket twice.

As for Rezko, I think it is just a coincidence that the trial ended now. I do think, however, that becaue of the timing the republicans haven't used it at all. Heck, even fox news was more interested in the VP talk. Do you honestly believe that the Reps would not push this issue if it would have been a slow news day?

As for coming back into the folds, I'm sorry but it aint gonna happen. I may be mad, which is true, but it still does not make Obama qualified in my eyes.

Furthermore, since I am more hawkish on foreign policy than the social-left, every time I see Carter pop up in favour of Obama I feel a depressing need to watch Bill O'reilly who I can't even stand. If Obama is smart, he will keep Carter away from the spotlight.

Speaking of which, I read this op-ed today on the daily:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/06/06/do0602.xml

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axt113:

Meh, the US was stupid back then, why were we supporting the Shah? We toppled a movement towards democracy in Iran in order to prop up a dictator and got burned, the US has to start living up to its ideals, we can't go around supporting dictators and despots and expect that there will not be any fallout in the future

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Uri:

@axt113: That "movement towards democracy" in Iran was called the Islamic Revolution and its leader was a gentle peaceful man by the name of Khomeini, who proceeded to install a gentle theocratic constitution and make peace with its closest neighbor, Iraq.

No wonder Obama is willing to meet unconditionally with the current democratic leader of this movement :)

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Uri:

@axt113: By the way we didn't technically prop up the Iranian Shah. He became a monarch in late 1941 while the US was sitting around idly letting those silly people in Europe conquer or burn each other.

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HESSIAN:

The Shah was deposed and we reinstalled him. And while I shouldn't rise to your childish and intentionally discussion stopping bait about US participation in WWII, I feel compelled to ask if you really believe that the US is broadly culpable in the genesis of WWII? You might take a little look-see at the history books with respect to the state of the US military and standing army in the late 1930's. We had the potential, but it was unrealized until the our involvement in the war was underway.
As another aside to one of your earlier comments, a large number of Arab Americans (it used to be a majority, and still may be) are not, in fact, Muslim.
You seem like a bright person, but you really damage your case when you reach for arguments that rely on what could charitably be called a tendentiously revisionist view of history.

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Uri:

@HESSIAN: I raised the issue of early isolationism in response to the blanket argument that the us raises dictators while stifling democratic movements. There are of course many cases in which the US did this (in fact, Saddam Hussein is an example).

However, that does not mean that the US is responsible for every evil in the world. In the case of the Shah, we did not instate his initial reign but rather the other future-allies did. US isolationist stance (which I cannot really judge, having not lived through the depression) did mean that other dictators were allowed to rise uninterrupted and allies were attacked. Therefore, these allies who stood alone cannot be judged for having instated the Shah. Call me a revisionist, if necessary. I do believe that if not for Pearl Harbour, the US may never have gotten involved in the war.

As for supposedly reinstating him after the revolution, that was not exactly the situation, and he never fully regained control. Either way, replacing someone who reigned in face of a revolution that cannot (even charitably) be defined as democratic, is not such an evil. Though the Shah was a corrupt monarch, he had least provided some democratic rights, including Suffrage.

Finally, I have no idea which comment you are referring to, but I do not appreciate the condescending tone regarding not all arabs being muslim. I am quite aware, of that, thank you, and in fact if my memory is not failing me, Ralph Nader defines himself as born to Arab Maronite Christians.

If you are referring to my comments about Obama speaking to muslims in MI, it is my impression that MI has a significant muslim population (so does MT, right?). We have not heard Obama's message to these voters, but something tells me that a united Jerusalem until Jewish control forever won't gain their support.

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The simple truth is that people are lazy and tend to refer to other "experts" in what they profess, rather than doing more difficult analysis and thinking.

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HESSIAN:

"Finally, I have no idea which comment you are referring to . . ."
Obviously you knew exactly the post to which my comment applied as demonstrated by:

If you are referring to my comments about Obama speaking to muslims in MI, it is my impression that MI has a significant muslim population (so does MT, right?). We have not heard Obama's message to these voters, but something tells me that a united Jerusalem until Jewish control forever won't gain their support.

It's hard to convey tone on the internet, but I can assure you that I was merely trying to relay a fact that I myself found surprising when I first learned it. If there is a big Muslim population in Montana, then that is something else I didn't know and find frankly astonishing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montana#Religion

wikipedia is hardly infallible, but, in this case, I'm willing to lay my money down.

With respect to Jerusalem, you are right. It was a surprising comment to say the least. My personal opinion is that it is clear that there must be at least a symbolic division of Jerusalem in any Final Status agreement.

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Kenny Easwaran:

I think I'll actually comment about this post, unlike some of the earlier commenters.

It seems to me that there are at least some good reasons why the made-up "national primary" might be worth looking at in determining the front-runner. For one thing, if it's early enough in the season, the national primary numbers may well indicate something about a candidate's fund-raising potential. Also, when Iowa is still several months away, it's not clear that polls in individual states really say all that much more than national polls.

However, in this case, since the presumptive front-runners had so much more national name-recognition than their rivals (except for McCain), it should have been natural for the media to realize that these numbers would change with the campaign, as voters get introduced to other candidates. The huge Huckabee surge in November and December is an instance of this.

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