Hillary Clinton's victory last night was truly stunning because just about every poll showed Barack Obama up by significant margins in the days leading to New Hampshire. As a result, poll-bashing has become the media's favorite past-time right now with all observers lamenting how they were misled by polls which explains how they could have covered the race so badly.
I could not disagree more. The polls did not get this election wrong because any careful reading of them would have had to concede that yesterday's voting looked widely unpredictable. The media is now trying to push the responsibility on pollsters, when what is to blame is the way they chose to interpret the surveys and run with the storyline of an unstoppable Obama.
For one, a few polls released late Monday and throughout the day Tuesday showed Obama's bounce stabilizing and Clinton starting to reverse the trend, starting to close the gap in the last Rasmussen and ARG polls. Now remember that most polls released on Monday were in the field over the week-end, many of them tested at least half of their sample on Saturday, prior even to the ABC debate.
The time allowed for campaigning in New Hampshire was five days; could it really have been expected that surveys taken on the second day would give an adequate picture of what would happen on the fifth? The electorate shifted from day-to-day and in much higher proportions than in a typical election, but that was perfectly predictable given the race's timing.
Not to mention that bounces are intrinsically volatile. Obama jumped 10 to 15 percentage points in the space of 48 hours after his Iowa win and, not to minimize the momentous nature of his triumph in the caucuses, no bounce like that can be sustained over time. The question, of course, was how long it would take for the bounce to start eroding and five days just seemed too short a time for Clinton to have any chance of a come-back. Yet, she managed and Obama's post-Iowa momentum was crushed in a matter of days; but all that time was clearly needed for that to happen and there is no way any poll in the field over the week-end, at the height of the Obama buzz, could have picked-up Clinton's come-back.
Finally, everyone was aware that the big question going into the election was how independents would break down between the two parties. These proportion would be decisive in both the Republican and Democratic contests and indeed the fact that much more than expected voted in the GOP primary was what propelled McCain into the lead and saved Clinton's candidacy. It was obvious that both McCain and Obama could not have a big night; they could both win, sure, but two large victories as some polls predicted appeared to be out of the question.
Independents appear to have moved away from Obama in the final day as fast as they had jumped on the bandwagon. Hypotheses (for now) aside, polls had not picked this up but they could not have been expected to. For one, all surveys constantly pointed out that we should watch for independent breakdowns, obviously hinting at the uncertainty they were reading among undecideds. And second, this move-back to the GOP race occurred in the final day as exit polls confirm, which is perfectly compatible with the volatility of Obama's momentum.
The media had all this information in its hand, yet it chose to go ahead and portray the Democratic race as a done-deal. The most troubling aspect of the night is that coverage of polls might have had a direct influence on the results. Reading everywhere that Obama's victory was ensured, a large proportion of independents might have then decided to jump to the GOP race where McCain seemed in slightly more trouble and where the polls were a bit less overwhelming.
That the media is now complaining about the treachery of polls unfortunately means that they will not learn any lesson from this election. If Hillary Clinton is up by 15 percent in tomorrow's South Carolina polls, expect a wave of stories about Clinton's insured Southern victory without any caution about how long that bounce might last. And the most stunning storyline this morning is that some are using the race-gap theory to explain the polls' mistake, complaining that New Hampshire Democrats just could not get themselves to vote for an African-American when all was said and done.
Even if we admit that New Hampshire Democrats are so dramatically more prone to this racist instinct than Iowa Democrats, it cannot account for a shift of more than ten points; and this theory is entirely discredited by everything we know about what happened yesterday. For one, pollsters were expecting more independents to choose the Democratic race and, given Obama's lead among that group and Clinton's among registered Democrats, that alone accounts for the discrepancy.
Second, the female vote massively shifted to Hillary Clinton in the final hours of the campaign. The polls in the final days are the gender gap shrinking: Obama led among both sexes after overtaking Hillary among women. Yesterday, Obama crushed her among men, but she trounced him among women. This is the second group, therefore, among which the answer as to what happened has to be looked for. And there is no reason to think that women are more prone to racist instincts while voting than men are.
So do not be afraid of trusting polls in the coming weeks; just learn how to read them better than the media does.
This piece was also posted on the author's blog, at Campaign Diaries.