THE BLOG
09/19/2007 07:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are Primary Polls Meaningful?

Don't get me wrong. I love polls. Survey research provides us
the most accurate and realistic view available of the current attitudes and preferences
of the American electorate. Yet, having said that, I find myself frequently
frustrated with the tone of much of the poll analysis I hear and read in the news
media. Some of the coverage focuses on the national primary polls as if we are
on the eve of a national primary.** Others analyze each successive poll -
national or statewide -- as if all of the voters were sitting in a jury box, following
every campaign development with rapt attention and regularly adjusting their
preferences accordingly.

After more than 20 years of conducting polls for political
campaigns, I can assure you: It just doesn't work that way.

So it's probably not surprising that I find much to
recommend in a Los Angeles Times op-ed
in yesterday's Los Angeles Times (rather, from July 2007 but discovered by me yesterday*** via
Dickerson) written by two
campaign consultants, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and Republican media
consultant Mike Murphy (neither is working for a presidential candidate in
2008, although Mellman polled for Kerry in 2004 and Murphy worked for McCain in
2000). They see strains of the "Heisenberg principle" in what they describe as
the "absurdly early start" of Campaign 2008:

It is reminiscent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle we all heard about in high school physics class. Professor Werner Heisenberg postulated that "the more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known." Applied to the presidential race, this suggests that the more we measure how the candidates stand now, the less we may know about where things are going to end up - because the measurement itself can render the findings inaccurate.

The noisy onslaught of public opinion polling in the media so early in the process would amuse the good professor, because the numbers are really little more than a vain attempt to measure something that hasn't happened. Although the political and media elites may think the campaign is in full swing, with the fortunes of each candidate rising and falling with every new poll, the truth is that voters - the ones who are really going to decide this race - don't start the campaign until much later.

Because voters are not required to make a decision until election day, they remain open at this stage in the race to new information, alternative perspectives and late-breaking developments - all of which render today's poll results, to one degree or another, meaningless.

I'm not sure I agree with "meaningless." That word applies
if you look to the current results of the trial heat questions that we chart
here at Pollster as conclude that they represent final, informed decisions
rather than potentially momentary preferences. However, follow the links and
dig deeper and these same surveys hold a lot of meaningful data on how much voters
know, and why they prefer one candidate over another, if only for the moment.

Take, for example, the point that Murphy and Mellman make
above, that voters in the key early states reaming open to new information and
late developments. Their argument receives strong support in the most recent
surveys
in Iowa, New
Hampshire and South
Carolina by the L.A.
Times
. Start with the Democrats. As the table below shows, while more than 80%
have a current vote preference (i.e. only 13% to 17% are "undecided"), 59% of
the likely caucus goers in Iowa and nearly
half in New Hampshire (45%) and South Carolina (47%) say
they still "might end up voting for someone else."

09-19%20lat%20certainty%20dems.png

The difference is even greater among Republicans. Roughly
the same number (83% to 87% depending on the state) have a vote preference, but
50% to 70% say they "might end up voting for someone else" on election day.

09-19%20lat%20certainty%20gop.png

Voters current preferences have meaning, but they are
subject to change, even in the early states. And as history tells us, the
results in Iowa and New Hampshire can have a profound
impact
on voter preferences nationally. So read all of the Murphy-Mellman
piece
, and stay tuned...

**An update: Speaking of the impact of early primaries, Kathy
Frankovic of CBS News devoted her weekly
column
to the question of "whether national polls about the nomination mean
anything now:"

In a nationwide poll that CBS News
and The New York Times conducted just before the 1984 New Hampshire Democratic
primary, Walter Mondale held what CBS News and The Times characterized as the
largest lead ever seen in national polls in the race for a nomination.
Fifty-seven percent of Democratic primary voters in that poll chose Mondale,
and only 7 percent chose Gary Hart. However, the day after that poll was
reported, Gary Hart beat Mondale handily in the New Hampshire primary. Mondale did go on to
win the nomination (and lose the election), but the timing of our poll report,
and its discrepancy with the New
Hampshire outcome raised many questions. Should we
even have conducted a national poll before a primary that would mean more to
the nomination process than any national poll?

The lesson of 1984 is not to put too much trust in national polls as predictors
of primary outcomes. Is there anything that we CAN learn about voters from
national polls now? We can certainly see if there are differences between the
general population and the people who say they will vote in the primaries or
caucuses. We can also gather clues about the possible composition of the
primary electorate. Do the most likely voters seem committed to certain
candidates? Do they have different issue preferences?

She continues with answers to those questions gleaned frome
recent CBS/New York Times polls. Read
it all
.

***Oops. I obviously misread the date. I think what was true in July remains true today, though Mellman and Murphy might disagree. Thanks to Art for the edit