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.