Who cares about national polls? And why?

On the front page of the WSJ is a story about how the Republican race is wide-open… according to a national poll:

WASHINGTON — Two weeks before the Iowa caucus, the race for president, while tightening among Democrats, is wide open on the Republican side, highlighting the unusual fluidity of the first campaign for the White House in over a half-century that doesn’t include an incumbent president or vice president.
    A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Rudy Giuliani has lost his national lead in the Republican field after a flurry of negative publicity about his personal and business activities, setting the stage for what could be the party’s most competitive nomination fight in decades.
    After holding a double-digit advantage over his nearest rivals just six weeks ago, the former New York City mayor now is tied nationally with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 20% among Republicans, just slightly ahead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 17% and Arizona Sen. John McCain at 14%. Other polls show Mr. Giuliani’s lead shrinking in Florida, one of the states he has built his strategy around…

Yes, the race is wide-open — in Iowa. It’s also pretty much up for grabs in New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But each of those is a separate contest, having influence on each other only as they occur in time. The Iowa results will reshape expectations, and to some extent results, in New Hampshire. New Hampshire and Iowa will have an effect on South Carolina, and so on.

But it doesn’t matter (or at least, shouldn’t matter), in terms of how any of those three contests come out, how any candidate is doing in a national poll. Nobody’s voting nationally. That won’t happen until November, and even then we’re talking about separate state contests for votes in the electoral college.

There are only five reasons I can think of why anyone would want to do a national poll any time before next fall:

  • Simple curiosity — the impulse to examine "what-if" scenarios.
  • The national media’s helpless fixation on horse-races (even a horse-race that isn’t actually occurring), and lack of imagination. They like to cover a nonexistent contest because contests are all they know how to write about or discuss. If they didn’t have those numbers to bat around, they might have to discuss issues.
  • The national media’s desire to make you think it is more relevant than it is at a time when you might be tempted to look to more regional sources of information.
  • A deliberate attempt to influence results in those states from without.
  • As part of an ideological (or geographically chauvinistic) campaign meant to move us more toward direct, popular election of the president — thereby increasing the power of the more heavily populated coastal areas, and diminishing the influence of "flyover country." The more you get people thinking of this in absolute national, numerical terms, the more you create the impression that this is the way things are, or the way they should be.

Of all those reasons, only the first one seems even remotely defensible — and even then, it’s not really worth the money or exposure such polls get.

5 thoughts on “Who cares about national polls? And why?

  1. bud

    Brad, does this mean you support the continued use of the electorial college? IMHO a discussion of the electorial college would be more interesting than the rather bland discussion of media polling. As for me, polling is a curiosity but not much more at this point.

  2. Karen McLeod

    These polls are financed and their results dutifully published in order to make money! People are curious; this is like the Paris Hilton chronicals (who IS she, by the way?). It has no bearing on anything. Its only purpose is to sell whatever media is reporting it.

  3. Gordon Hirsch

    I’m no fan of polls or the ways they can be used to manipulate, but it is interesting to see who might win the election were it to be held today. Everything evolves, candidates and popular opinion alike. And as with most anything, the journey can be more eventful than the arrival. Polls just help us mark the trail for history.

  4. The 7-10: Anthony Palmer

    National polls are pointless and do a great disservice to the electorate. If you don’t live in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, Nevada, or Florida, you probably have yet to see a single campaign ad or attend a single campaign event. So these national polls are all about name recognition. And that doesn’t mean anything.
    People in Iowa and New Hampshire have had many months to compare and evaluate all the candidates running, so their decisions are a bit more informed than those of the good voters of, say, Kentucky, who barely know who’s running. So I’d trust those state polls a bit more than the national ones.
    These national polls only benefit the wealthiest and best known candidates. Everybody knows Hillary and Rudy, for example, so they’ll claim they “support” these people when national pollsters call even though most of these voters probably couldn’t tell you three differences between them.
    The only value these polls have is that they feed into the whole “politics as sport” horserace storyline. But if an unexpected candidate does unexpectedly well in Iowa or New Hampshire, these national polls will change instantly, thus further illustrating how unreliable these polls were to begin with.
    Incidentally, I was called by a pollster for the very first time tonight. Someone was doing some insider polling for Hillary Clinton. When I told the woman I was planning to vote for Joe Biden, she was confused and even said “she didn’t know how to record that vote,” probably because he’s considered such a longshot or doesn’t fit into the media crafted storyline of the “Big 3.”

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