Spin patrol: Pundits were wrong, but didn’t say it

Watching the analysis of Tuesday’s stunner on the Dem side of the New Hampshire primary, what I most wanted was to hear one of the bigfoot pundits say: “We were all wrong. We didn’t see this coming. The polls misled us. We don’t know why it happened and we should stop pretending that we do.” And then shut up for a while and let some more actual votes be counted.

The stunner last night was not that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did better in New Hampshire than she did in Iowa. Iowa and New Hampshire often produce different winners. The surprise last night was all about the results not matching the pre-election polls, which showed consistently that Sen. Barack Obama would win New Hampshire big.

I’m looking at pollster.com’s compilation of the 22 most  recent polls of likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters taken after the Iowa results were in. (Note, that’s 22 polls of the same question over a five-day span. Any chance our political culture could benefit from a little less polling?)

One of them shows Clinton ahead by two points, and it is one of the older polls with one of the smaller sample sizes. One of them shows Clinton and Obama tied (also one of the older polls). Twenty of them show Obama ahead. In nine of the polls, Obama’s lead was 10 or more percentage points. In just three of the polls was Obama’s lead less than five points.

We are often cautioned against taking polls as predictions, They are only snapshots of a moment, and the moment is never the same as the election. And then there’s the fact that margins of error are always published (although many of these polls, if compared against the final result, were outside of the margin). I often pass along this caution myself, even while acknowledging that, like most political junkies, I am irresistibly drawn to the latest polling data.

But in the modern era of constant polling, using different methodologies and question wording, I can’t think of another instance in which such a strong consensus among poll results so close to an election turned out to be this far off from the final result.

A small thought experiment
Imagine that there had been no polls taken in New Hampshire. Before Iowa, when it appeared that Clinton might not win there, it was often reported that her campaign was attempting to set up a windbreak in New Hampshire to stop Obama from building irresistible momentum. In the no-polls fantasy, this strategy would have remained somewhat credible, and been mentioned alongside the possibility that it would fail and Obama would win New Hampshire with his post-Iowa momentum.

If Clinton had won narrowly and we hadn’t just seen 20 polls with big Obama leads, we would not have been shocked. But, because of the polling consensus, that idea was swept away.

Over the course of the late evening, many pundits pondered the impact of the footage showing Clinton choking up while talking about her motives for soldiering on. I normally eschew predictions, but I predict this moment will enter political legend, along with the greatly overrated Howard Dean scream of 2004 (people keep trying to forget that the scream followed Dean’s defeat in Iowa and therefore could not have caused it), and a similar misty moment by Sen. Ed Muskie in 1972 (although in Muskie’s case, the teary voice supposedly ruined his standing, while Clinton’s mistiness saved hers).

It may very well be that Clinton’s misty moment explains her rally. We don’t know and we never will. I would appreciate any pundit who embraces this fairly mushy analysis point who also acknowledges that it is simply a guess that can neither be confirmed nor falsified.

Even the elderly women who (according to the hypothesis and according to exit polls that showed Clinton with a huge margin among older women) shifted to Clinton after seeing her tear up, probably can’t say that that was the reason, unless the media onslaught convinces them that it was so.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Tom Poe on 01/09/2008 - 03:50 pm.

    I suspect the pundits are more interested in keeping their press cards, than informing the public. The RNC and DNC have invested a lot in their present position of power, and don’t intend to give it up to the people, easily. Put that together with the fact that our country utilizes proprietary electronic voting machines that guarantee some the ability to manipulate the vote count without detection (yes, secret vote count), and pundits now have to either raise the issue of vote manipulation (election fraud), or come up with utter nonsensical rationale for mismatch.

    We have, among other things, been sold a bill of goods on the Help America Vote Act. We, the public have to prove that the vote count was wrong due to undetectable vote count manipulation. That’s right. If we can prove undetectable vote manipulation took place, we can demand a recount.

    In Australia, they realized that proprietary electronic voting systems literally take away the voters’ right to vote. They use nonproprietary electronic voting systems that enable public scrutiny of their elections, and can detect most, if not all, “undetectable” vote count manipulation. They even make their election software available free to the rest of the world to modify and use. Now, I wonder why the U.S. won’t permit such systems to be used in our election? The cost would be a fraction of what we’re spending, and the systems would let us make sure we don’t have some jerk manipulating the vote count, and reporting someone won, when they didn’t. But, hey, pundits need to keep their jobs, right?

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 01/09/2008 - 05:26 pm.

    A large bloc of voters in New Hampshire were identifying themselves as “independents.” Both the Republicans and the Democrats need to pry their eyes away from their polling data and their latest blog entries long enough to realize that there is dissatisfaction among a large chunk of voters–on both sides of the political street. Many of these voters are “independent.”

    Caucus states like Iowa (and Minnesota) are designed to cater to the party faithful. The average Joe and Jane are not as likely to go to a caucus as opposed to voting in a primary.

    As long as the talking heads continue to get their stream of spoon-fed nuggets and tidbits from both parties and their affiliated minions, we can expect a long campaign season ahead of us.

  3. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 01/10/2008 - 09:41 pm.

    Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had a very good performance in the Saturday evening debate televised on ABC.

    She was smart, articulate, humorous, and also tough. That, combined with her emotional moment in the diner, showed that she is multi-faceted, and I think those qualities are appreciated by many voters, perhaps most so by other women.

  4. Submitted by John E Iacono on 01/14/2008 - 08:21 pm.

    Polls are as good as: the size of the sampling; the script provided; the questions asked; how they are worded; how they are spoken to the one polled; the time of day when they are taken; the methodology used to “random” select subjects; How accurately the nuanced responses are recorded; the assumptions used when evaluating the raw data; the method of writing up the “results”; and the use the press chooses to make of them.

    No-one yet has found a reliable method to account for ALL of these variables.

    Every step of the way is fraught with potential human error or misstep. And none can predict the future — even one hour beyond the poll period.

    It seems to me most polls seem to get the results the pollsters are looking for, blatantly (3 of 4 dentists…) or surreptitiously.

    So I put them on the shelf with science fiction works — enjoyable, but with no connection to real life, the more so as they appear to be real.

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