If polls are political crack, than I've been happily
snorting the latest from the CNN/WMUR New Hampshire primary polls conducted the
University of New Hampshire (also known as the
"Granite Poll") for the last 24 hours or so. I've become a fan of this survey because
of the "internals" included in their questionnaire and the very helpful set of crosstabs
(for the Democratic
samples) released as always by University
of New Hampshire Survey Center.
on the two surveys highlighted the same trial heat numbers that virtually
everyone else is focusing on: Clinton's
lead has increased since July, while support for Mitt Romney has fallen off so
that he now runs neck-and-neck with Rudy Giuliani.
However, to elaborate on a point I tried to make a week
ago, the trial heat numbers in such polls (yes, the ones we track here at
Pollster) may be the least useful at this stage, particularly if you interpret
them as a prediction of what voters will do several months from now. Surveys
are good at telling us what voters think and who they currently prefer, but those
preferences are always subject to change. The latest survey of Democrats from
UNH/CNN/WMUR helps put some of those preferences in perspective. Here a few
1) A preference is still not a final decision -- Just
before asking the likely Democratic primary voter who they would vote for "if
the election were held today," the UNH pollsters ask them how close they are to
making a final decision.
So even though 91% can name a candidate they would support,
only 17% are "definitely decided," 28% are just "leaning to someone" and more
than half (55%) "still trying to decide." Of course, voters may ultimately
decide to support their current preference, but by their own report most have
not yet made that final choice.
I wrote the last two paragraphs before the Republican results
had been released, but those numbers show even more evidence of uncertainty. Although
84% of Republicans express a candidate preference, 66% say they are "still
trying to decide" while only 13% are definitely decided and 21% are leaning to a
2) A Big Shift on
"Can Win"- One of the biggest and most noteworthy shifts on the Democratic
poll involves the question about which candidate "has the best chance of
beating the Republican nominee in the general election next November?" Although.
Hillary Clinton's share of the vote has increased four points (from 39% to 43%)
since June, we see a 17-point increase (from 37% to 54%) in assessments that
she has best chance to win in November:
These results are consistent with similar findings from the
most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal national survey
of Democrats, which show the percentage choosing Clinton as the Democrat with
the "best chance to defeat the Republican candidate" growing from 39% to 54%
from April to September. Also, the Pew
Research Center shows 53% of Democrats now naming Clinton as the candidate
with the "the best chance of winning the general election against a Republican"
(although they had not asked the question previously).
I noticed something interesting buried in the cross-tabs. Most of the
shift on this measure in the UNH polls has occurred among the roughly 60% of
likely Democratic primary voters that are less than "extremely interested" in
the primary. That suggests a common pattern: Less attentive voters reacting mostly
to the dominant campaign news story, "horserace" coverage relentlessly portraying Clinton as front runner consolidating her lead.
One thing to keep in mind though. Electability ratings are
not always a great predictor of, well...of electability. The 2004 National Annenberg
Election Study (NAES)
tracked electability ratings of each of the Democratic candidates (how likely respondents
considered each candidate to beat George Bush in November) among likely
Democratic primary voters from October 2003 though February 2004. In a paper presented
to the American Political Science Association annual meeting in September 2004),
Annenberg's Kate Kenski
Dean's electability and viability
ratings were higher than those of Kerry until the Iowa caucuses. After the Iowa caucuses, Kerry's electability ratings
surpassed those of Dean. Impressions of Dean's electability against Bush
reached a high point
of almost 53% around November 19. Two months later, on the evening of the Iowa caucuses, this
perception had decreased eight points.
3) A McCain
Resurgence? Support for John McCain among likely Republican primary voters,
which had fallen sharply in New
Hampshire as elsewhere, has increased to 17% on this survey
from a low of 12% in July. McCain's support had hovered around 30% in UNH polls
conducted during 2006 and early 2007.
An outlier? Perhaps, but dig deeper and the survey yields
evidence of some underlying strengths for McCain in New Hampshire that may provide a foundation
for a future resurgence there. His favorable rating now (63% favorable, 24%
unfavorable) is slightly but not significantly better than it was in February (59%
favorable, 27% unfavorable) when he had 28% of the vote and ran a point ahead
of Giuliani. And McCain now leads the Republican field (with 32%) on the
question of which candidate has the "right experience to be president."
It bears repeating: Eight years ago, John McCain defeated
George Bush by a huge margin in New
Hampshire (49% to 30%) among these same voters. Voters
have a way of falling back to past preferences.
4) Favorable Ratings
- Talk to campaign pollsters about the value of the trial heat results and most
will tell you a similar story: Vote preference is usually the last thing to change.
If you want to see evidence of the campaigning and paid advertising that
candidates do, look to the movement in their favorable ratings. The table below
shows the most vivid evidence of the real progress that the candidates are
making in New Hampshire,
starting with the Democrats:
And the Republicans:
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