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Premature Prognostication: Presidential Polls Come Two Years Too Soon

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Is there anything more ridiculous than speculative polls offering head-to-head match-ups between potential presidential candidates done two years before the next election?

Other than Don Rumsfeld getting a hero's sendoff at the Pentagon, I mean.

Yet the media, in their infinite wisdom, have once again decided that gazing into their crystal balls is the best use of their time and influence, and have begun trotting out the One From Column A vs. One From Column B "What if..." polls. Nothing actually going on in the world worth covering, I guess.

Late last week, the Los Angeles Times' top story was the utter nonstory that, in a poll of 1,489 randomly selected adults, John McCain kicked Hillary Clinton's butt. That's right, the dust hasn't even settled from the 2006 elections -- and Tim Johnson's surgeons might end up deciding control of the Senate -- but the LA Times thinks it is front page news that Hillary "would be soundly beaten" by McCain if the 2008 election was held today. Which it absolutely can't be -- unless the Times has figured out how to manipulate the space/time continuum.

Standard poll results are dubious enough (I explain why here, here, and here) -- but polls that try to predict the outcome of a theoretical race that is 23 months (to say nothing of untold number of debates, speeches, primaries, TV commercials, news stories, and unplanned appearances on YouTube) away aren't even worth the paper they are printed on.

But that didn't stop the LA Times from treating the poll results with the same reverence the Romans used to give to the reading of chicken entrails.

So we learned that McCain would take Hillary, Hillary would take Mitt Romney (but not by much), that Rudy Giuliani and Condi Rice have much higher favorable ratings among Republicans than McCain, and that 88 percent of GOP voters "haven't heard enough" about Rep. Duncan Hunter to offer up an impression of his presidential potential. You don't say.

In fact, not having heard enough was a dominant theme in the poll. On the Republican side, over half of those polled felt they hadn't heard enough about six of the ten potential candidates the Times asked about, while the majority of Democratic voters hadn't heard enough about five of the ten they were asked about -- including Joe Biden who has been a U.S. Senator for 34 years and ran for president in 1988. And raising the question of whether some of those polled have been residing in caves, 40 percent of Democrats said they haven't heard enough about Barack Obama.

Also of little-to-no-significance was the poll's finding that "only 4 percent of registered voters said they would not vote for a woman for president" while "3 percent said they would not vote for an African American." The pollsters seem to forget "the 15% lie" effect, wherein racists and sexists tend to not tell strangers who call them on the phone their true feeling about women and minorities. This reluctance apparently does not extend to Mormons: 14 percent of registered voters -- including 17 percent of Democrats -- told the LA Times they would not vote for a Mormon such as Romney.

Of course, this love of pointless polling extends well beyond the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, polls have become firmly entrenched as the lingua franca of political analysis. The cable universe would go dark if it were unable to turn political campaigns into horse races handicapped by wild conjecture and pure guesswork. And it's so much more impressive if you can parade fatuous numbers as hardcore facts to prove Who's Hot and Who's Not.

Reporters and editors know these things are utterly meaningless but they just can't help themselves. Playing "What if..." is downright addictive. Even if it means hating themselves after the polling buzz wears off. Case in point, the Washington Post which just gave us one of the most guilt-ridden "Guess Who's Ahead" poll result articles in history. Headlined "Clinton and Giuliani Have the Early Edge for '08, Poll Shows," the story (which the Post had the decency not to run on the front page) trotted out the standard stats and analysis -- Hillary has a 56 percent favorable rating but "remains the most polarizing politician" among those considering an '08 run -- but also came with a bracing chaser of self-flagellation:

These early poll results largely reflect name identification among the field of candidates, which includes several political celebrities and many others who remain generally unknown to people outside their states. As a result, hypothetical matchups are often poor predictors of what will happen once the primary and caucus season arrives in early 2008, and as voters learn more about where candidates stand on important issues.

... Underscoring the fragility of early polls on the presidential race is the fact that most Americans know little about where the candidates stand on specific issues.

But that won't stop newspapers and cable shows from continuing to put these worthless exercises front and center. Dissecting the latest poll is so much easier than actually, y'know, digging for information or coming up with a real news story.