Politico Dubiously Calls Clinton NH Win A 'Top Upset'

01/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Politico has an end of the year listicle detailing the "Top 10 Political Upsets of 2008," which is generally a well-curated list of races from throughout the election season where results ran counter to expectations. It blends some key surprises in the presidential race (such as Obama winning that split electoral vote in Nebraska) with some unexpected downticket results (Tom Perriello defeating Rep. Virgil Goode in Virginia). There's only one inclusion that I'd take issue with:

Hillary Clinton (New Hampshire Democratic primary): In fall 2007, no one would have been surprised by a prediction that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) would win the New Hampshire primary. She was, after all, the inevitable nominee. But after Barack Obama's Iowa victory, and her third-place finish there, virtually every poll showed Clinton hemorrhaging support in the nation's first presidential primary election.

How did she pull out a three-point victory? Experts and campaign advisers disagree, though most believe it had to do with some combination of Clinton's strong connection with New Hampshire women, resilient support among white working-class voters, a strong field operation and voter unwillingness to hand Obama the Democratic nomination on a silver platter.

I accept the fact that most of these "upsets" aren't "upsets" in the classic sporting sense of a badly overmatched David managing a defeat of Goliath. Rather, these are results that simply ran counter to informed expectations. But in the case of Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire win, I think this is a race that the press is going to have to admit they simply got wrong. While the myth of New Hampshire is that the polls did a bad job capturing the mood of the electorate, the truth is that the media just did a bad job reading the polls. I count myself among the guilty parties, and would direct you to some critical insight offered by one of the experts on the ground:

As the last polls came in the Sunday before the primary, one important number failed to register: 47 percent. That's the percentage of the Democratic electorate in New Hampshire that hadn't made up its mind on who to vote for. Jennifer Donahue of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm's College, told the Huffington Post, "I always look for that number first because historically, New Hampshire voters make up their minds at the last minute." On Sunday night, that was the number that stood out in the CNN/WMUR poll. That large number of Democratic undecideds so close to the vote was unprecedented. And it was no outlier: the pollster at CNN/WMUR said that number was consistent throughout all the polls being taken.

"That, right there, is cautionary," Donahue says, adding that the news should have been, "Half the democratic electorate still undecided...and that would be the headline until that number hits 30 percent."

The pollsters are partly to blame, Donahue relates, because they didn't offer enough guidance on how to assess the results. The polls should have led, in "bold, red letters" with a headline noting that the electorate had largely not made up their minds and that the contest was still a dead heat in spite of Obama's lead in the horse race figures. Still, the press missed this, despite compelling reasons (the shortened schedule, the New Hampshire tradition of voters who make up their minds at the last minute) to be on the lookout. Had they done so, the story on Monday morning might have been that Obama's lead was largely illusory, and the race, too close to call.

Ultimately, the pundits could have easily availed themselves of information that clearly showed the primary was anybody's race. They just didn't. And in the end, I don't think that Clinton's win was much of an upset. Various tick-tock accounts of the campaigns in that last weekend found Obama angling to pull independent voters while Clinton was going after the Democratic undecideds. That's all extrapolated from anecdotal reporting, of course, but it still plausibly suggests that Clinton was working the more fertile electoral turf, and therefore, her win was a result of sensible retail campaigning, instead of a collision of secondary factors.

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