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Clinton Surprise Brings Pre-Primary Polls Under Scrutiny

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So much has happened in the past week it boggles the mind. Just a week ago, Iowa caucused and gave Senator Obama a surprising and definite victory to bring to New Hampshire. Senators Edwards and Clinton were retooling messages and machinery, and the press corps was flying to New Hampshire. Five days later, New Hampshire voters would weigh in.

Polls taken in New Hampshire stopped three days later, two days before the primary. Those polls were taken on the final weekend, which also turned out to be a good ski and tv sports weekend. The polls and, much more importantly, the primary, occurred before New Hampshire college and graduate students returned from break.

With Michigan holding to its January 15th date, New Hampshire's traditional eight day window after Iowa was compressed to five days. Secretary of State Bill Gardner picked the date as soon as Michigan resolved its date, just before Thanksgiving, and well after most students, faculty and staff of Dartmouth and UNH and numerous other colleges had made travel plans. Many students and faculty returned, but many did not. Those populous and progressive towns were strongholds for Obama.

Amidst the final polling, candidate events and media coverage were back to back ABC debates at Saint Anselm, the fierce fight between candidates, Bill Clinton on the trail, reports of a shakeup at the Clinton campaign, tears, attacks, likeability versus "you're likeable enough", the FOX News debate, and massive get-out-the-vote efforts. Perhaps the last thing the press could see is that its own conventional wisdom pre-Iowa would be the big surprise out of New Hampshire--a win for the candidate formerly known as inevitable.

Let's look at the numbers. The CNN/WMUR/UNH poll conducted 1/5-6 had a margin of error +/- 6% for the Democrats and showed Senator Obama with 39%, and Senator Clinton at 29%. The poll was widely used on Monday, January 7th, and verified by the results of other polls with similar findings. The key to understanding what the poll meant lay in something that went largely unreported: only 55% of respondents had "definitely decided" on their candidate. 45% of those polled were leaning in a direction or still deciding.

A FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted 1/4-6 with a +/- 4% margin had Obama at 32 and Clinton at 28. A Marist College poll conducted 1/5-6 with margins of error +/- 4% and +/- 5%, showed Obama at 34% and Clinton at 28%. When asked how strongly voters supported their candidate, 23% of Obama's supporters indicated they might change their vote, while only 12% of Clinton supporters indicated soft support. A 7NEWSBoston/Suffolk University poll conducted 1/5-6 with a margin of +/- 4% was the most accurate, showing Obama at 35% and Clinton at 34%. An American Research Group poll conducted 1/5-6 had a margin of error of +/- 4% and showed Senator Clinton 11 points behind Senator Obama. A Concord Monitor/Research 2000 poll conducted 1/4-5 had a margin of error for each +/- 5% and showed Obama and Clinton in a dead heat, 34 to 33. A Strategic Vision poll conducted 1/4-6 with a margin of error of +/- 4% had Obama 9 points ahead of Clinton. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted 1/4-6 had a margin of error of +/- 4% and showed Obama 13 points ahead of Clinton.

So what does it all mean? It means New Hampshire voters did what they normally do: decide late, change their minds often, and don't talk much about who they are going to vote for. In an information age when most people use caller ID on their regular phones to screen telemarketers and their cellphones to actually talk, we may be past the point where voters can accurately be polled by telephone. That said, there was evidence that some polls with the highest leads for Obama also reported that nearly half of likely democratic voters were still deciding. And some smaller polls like those done for the Concord Monitor and Boston's 7NEWS weren't far off.

Exit polls aren't too scientific in a place where citizens keep their votes private. They did provide some good data points though. When asked when they made their decision, 39% of Clinton voters and 36% of Obama voters said "today."