Election Polls: What We're After

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.

But wait: That – I hope – is not what our polls are after.

I like to think there are two things we cover in an election campaign. One is the election; the other is the campaign.

The campaign is about who wins. It's about tactics and strategy, fundraising and ad buys, endorsements and get-out-the-vote drives. It's about the score of the game – the horse race, contest-by-contest, and nothing else. We cover it, as we should.

The election is the bigger picture: It's about Americans coming together in their quadrennial exercise of democracy – sizing up where we're at as a country, where we want to be and what kind of person we'd like to lead us there. It's a different story than the horse race, with more texture to it, and plenty of meaning. We cover it, too.

We ask the horse race question in our national polls for context – not to predict the winner of a made-up national primary, but to see how views on issues, candidate attributes and the public’s personal characteristics inform their preferences.

The horse race is one question of 51 in our last poll, on a wide range of subjects. Rarely does it make the lead of one of the analyses my unit produces; we’d rather write about what’s behind it, as in our assessment, yesterday, of the role of “strength and experience” vs. “new direction and new ideas” as a campaign dynamic – a dynamic I expect to be central not only in the primaries, but even more so in the general election beyond.

The early caucuses and primaries do play a winnowing role in the campaign, although it’s an open question whether they do much more than eject subpar candidates who wouldn’t make the cut anywhere else, either (or, conversely, give short-term legs to the occasional sure loser). Nor do they necessarily anoint nominees (not even New Hampshire, since 1992 and 2000), much less presidents. And their impact this year, with Mega Tuesday a few weeks down the road, may conceivably be attenuated.

Whatever the horse race in the early-state campaigns, I’d argue that national polls add something unique and useful to our understanding of the election, by widening the field of our scrutiny. A few hundred thousand caucus-goers in Iowa and primary attendees in New Hampshire – largely homogenous states with few big cities, few minorities and few immigrants – can tell us what they’re thinking. But they can’t tell us what the nation’s thinking, and in covering the election – not just the campaign – that matters even more.

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