Already, Too Much of the ’08 Coverage Is Quite Misleading

by Stuart Rothenberg April 5, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Unfortunately, too many of us who cover politics are treating the 2008 presidential race as if it were the National Football League — where virtually every game is critical in the hunt for the playoffs.

Sorry, but that’s not exactly the way the presidential race works, at least not now that the campaign starts more than a year before Iowa.

The presidential race more closely resembles the Major League Baseball season. It’s very long. And unless a candidate makes a major, macaca-like blunder, the daily ups and downs of a 12-month campaign won’t be all that important until late 2007, or even early ’08.

Iowa voters have only now started to meet and consider the candidates, and it will be many months before they start evaluating the presidential hopefuls with an eye to their caucus participation.

“We’ve seen in prior presidential elections that voters’ criteria change as they move from what they like — or who they are meeting for the first time — to who they think ought to be president,” Democratic strategist Diane Feldman, who polled for Bill Bradley in 2000, told me recently.

History, after all, is replete with summer boomlets for presidential candidates who, when Iowa activists finally attend the state’s caucuses on a cold and often snowy night in January, do surprisingly poorly.

In November 2003, few reporters or political insiders figured that Howard Dean would finish a weak third (with 18 percent) or Richard Gephardt a stunning fourth (11 percent) in Iowa, far behind winner John Kerry (38 percent) or runner-up John Edwards (32 percent). In fact, all of the evidence was to the contrary, even just six weeks before the caucuses.

The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, conducted by Selzer & Co., showed Gephardt (27 percent) and Dean (20 percent) leading in a Nov. 2-5, 2003, survey of 501 likely caucus attendees.

A late November-early December 2003 Princeton Survey Research Associates poll of “likely Democratic caucus voters statewide” for the Pew Research Center found Dean surging ahead (29 percent), with Gephardt running second (21 percent), Kerry third (18 percent) and Edwards fourth, at 5 percent, a single point ahead of Dennis Kucinich.

Two other surveys of “likely” or “probable” Democratic caucus attendees, an Iowa State University poll in mid-November and a Zogby International survey in early December, showed similar numbers.

Moreover, we all heard talk back then about Dean’s fundraising surge and about the army of Deaniacs who were going to descend on Iowa from around the country to deliver the caucuses for the former Vermont governor.

The only problem is that early on, Iowans weren’t telling pollsters and reporters how they eventually would vote because they didn’t know — and wouldn’t know — until they made a serious assessment of the candidates and had to make an actual choice about their party’s nominee for president.

One savvy political consultant told me a number of years ago that 90 percent of what goes on in a campaign doesn’t matter. The only problem is that nobody knows which 10 percent does.

In much the same way, most of the early focus on tactics and polling by reporters and talking heads doesn’t do much to help us know who the Democratic nominee will be. The anti-Hillary Rodham Clinton YouTube video, appearances by Clinton and Barack Obama in Selma, Ala., the early flap over Edwards’ bloggers and the early sniping over David Geffen’s comments are not likely to have much effect when Iowa (or New Hampshire) voters pick their candidates.

The early coverage is entertaining, and it keeps some people employed, but it creates a mistaken impression about what is important and who will be nominated.

Similarly, these early national polls are an incredible waste of money and energy. They, too, tell us remarkably little about the nominees. The Republican and Democratic nominations aren’t determined by a national vote, yet media organizations and polling companies continue to take national surveys. It’s incredible.

I went back to the Dec. 8, 2003, issue of The Polling Report and found that at least five organizations — CNN/USA Today/Gallup, Ipsos Public Affairs for The Associated Press, Princeton Survey Research for Pew, Harris Interactive for CNN/Time, and Opinion Dynamics for Fox News — did national polls of the Democratic race from mid-November to early December 2003.

Each pollster drew a slightly different sample, but the results were nearly identical. Dean generally ran first, while Wesley Clark was second. Gephardt and Joe Lieberman followed. (The Pew survey had Edwards tied with Al Sharpton, at 5 percent, with Kerry just a single point ahead of them.)

Obviously, those national numbers weren’t predictive. But more than that, they were misleading. That is one reason why a very smart political operative told me in no uncertain terms that “public polling [in the presidential race] is total trash.” Not only are national numbers irrelevant, but polling in a low-turnout caucus isn’t likely to be much better.

It’s fun to talk about the race and to look for strengths and weaknesses of candidates. We can all chatter about fundraising totals, smile knowingly about the most recent confrontation that most likely will be soon forgotten and speculate about the future. But anyone who figures that the early developments that we’ve been watching, including the national polls, are really telling you who will win the two nominations for president is somebody with no sense of history and no understanding of politics.