Polling’s Point?

Every election cycle, the media bemoans the fact that campaigns start earlier than ever. Even at the congressional level, members of the house of representatives who are in contested districts usually begin their reelection campaign right after the previous election ended. In an attempt to explain why the campaign cycle starts too early, the LA Times applies the Heisenberg Principle (normally reserved for those interested in quantum mechanics) to the modern presidential campaign cycle. The article’s author’s allege that

Because voters are not required to make a decision until election day, they remain open at this stage in the race to new information, alternative perspectives and late-breaking developments — all of which render today’s poll results, to one degree or another, meaningless.

Consider this: More than two-thirds of the Democrats who voted in the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn’t decide who to vote for until a month before the caucuses. Four in 10 decided in the last week. In 2004, 54% of New Hampshire Democrats decided within a week of the primary. It’s no surprise, then, that in the 2004 election, John Kerry was lagging in third place until only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Kerry then more than doubled his vote in Iowa and nearly quadrupled it in New Hampshire — all in less than 20 days.

Ironically, the authors of the article in question are Mike Murphy and Mark Mellman, two widely connected and respected pollsters. To them, polling at this stage is futile and only serves the interests of political elite (read donors). For more enlightening commentary on this article, see respected poli sci PHD candidate/blogger Jay Cost who manages to talk about physics, business school, Foucault, and the LA times article in the same entry. But for now, Murphy and Mellman miss a few empirical counter examples. First, the two pollsters overstate their thesis a bit when they write

Millions raised, then spent, thousands of staffers, all the early spin, all the early endorsements, and all the early everything else consists mainly of campaigns trying to create metrics by which the media can measure their progress.

For instance, Howard Dean, was not the establishment candidate in 2004 yet his compelling anti-war message resonated. Coupled with his innovative use of the internet as a fund-raising tool, his early swell of support can’t really be attributed to elite’s talking among themselves. Also, even state wide elections have shown how real grass-roots democracy can have large scale political impacts. Jay Cost argues that elites serve to narrow down the choices of available candidates in an election and that’s a good thing. However, that hypothesis can’t explain how Ned Lamont was single handily able to drive Joe Lieberman to the right and essentially force the Democratic party to exile him. Largely supported by the left-wing blogosphere, Lamont won the Democratic Primary in Connecticut in 2006 but lost the general election because his only issue was getting out of the war in Iraq.

Interestingly enough, Cost writes

Elites of all stripes – journalists, pundits, Washington power brokers, donors, and even the well-informed who chime in via the blogosphere – are actively engaged in determining the agenda for the 2008 election, i.e. who shall and who shall not be a candidate worthy of the average voter’s consideration.

So is Dailywrit complicit in this? =O

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