06/21/2007 08:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Merits of the "Horse Race"

This seems to be the week for analytical pieces on the merits
of looking at early horse-race polls. In addition to the three
I linked to yesterday, add one
more today
from the New York Times'
Robin Toner. So let me take this opportunity to throw in my two cents.

There are many reasons why you might want to look at early
polls in the presidential race. Hopefully one of those reasons is not to
determine which candidate deserves your support, particularly in the
presidential race. Even if picking a winner matters to you, history has shown repeatedly
that early front runners sometimes falter, as Toner's piece chronicles in
detail. Thus, vote preference questions asked this early in the presidential
race "may have very little relationship to the ultimate outcome."

On the other hand, if you are like most candidates, staff,
consultants, journalists and ordinary political junkies, your interest more in tracking
the progress of the presidential campaigns than in predicting the ultimate winner. If
so, you want to know which candidates are succeeding, who is making progress, who is having trouble "getting traction?" If those questions interest you, then the polls you want to follow are the
ones in Iowa and New Hampshire. I say that knowing that
surveys of potential caucus goers in Iowa face much bigger methodological challenges than those in other
contests (and some pollsters rise to those challenges better than others).

Polls in those early states are worth following because of
the enormous impact they have had historically on the voters in the primary and
caucus states that follow. Consider the advice in the Toner piece from
Republican pollster Bill McInturff:

Bill McInturff, a pollster for Mr. McCain in 2000
and today, said that national polls were of limited utility at this stage, and
that state polls were subject to drastic change.

"Results in the early races ripple through the
primaries," Mr. McInturff said, recalling Mr. McCain's upset victory in New Hampshire seven years ago, just before the race moved
to South Carolina.
"The day before New Hampshire, McCain was 20
points down in South Carolina.
The day after, he was tied."

Moreover, up until January 2008, the candidates will spend
the overwhelming majority of their time and cash in Iowa
and New Hampshire.
They will go elsewhere to raise money, but over the next eight months or so, "the
campaign" will mostly occur in Iowa, New Hampshire and a handful
of other early states.

The best demonstration is the recent rise of Mitt Romney and
Bill Richardson in both Iowa and New Hampshire (see our charts for IA-Rep, NH-Rep, IA-Dem, NH-Dem). The explanation
for both trends is easy: Both candidates have been running broadcast television
advertising there. Romney has already reportedly spent over $4
in the two states; Richardson
was reportedly
buying time at a level that (by my estimate, using last year's rates) looks
like about $200K per week (or perhaps total, it's not entirely clear from the

Of course, in time, all of the candidates will join the ad
war, resulting in some reshuffling of the standings. Who will benefit? Who
knows? The safest bet is that by January, most of the candidates will enjoy the
same level of name recognition in the early states as the front runners do now.
But the point here is that if we want to follow the process of the campaign,
the trends in those early states are the ones that matter most, particularly as
the information flow to those voters cranks up.

Is there any reason to watch the national horse race numbers
now when most voters may not make up their minds in a meaningful way until
January 2008? One argument is that we have so much more national data, and the
sampling methods are typically more rigorous, consistent and reliable than the
approaches used by public polls in early states, particularly in early caucus states
like Iowa and Nevada. When we pool national data across
multiple surveys -- as we do on the graphs here at Pollster
-- the odds are greater that any trends we do see reflect real change. Moreover,
some national polls provide unusually rich snapshots of the perceptions of the
best known candidates beyond just the horserace preference. The most recent NBC
News/Wall Street Journal poll
a great example (especially the Q16 and Q20 series).

Just keep in mind this warning (via Toner ) from the Pew Research
Center's Andy Kohut: "Their attitudes are soft, so tests of their
[current] preferences are not reliable." That data back him up even in New
Hampshire, as Bruce Reed noticed. More than half of Republicans (57%) and almost as many Democrats
(49%) told the CNN/WMUR/UNH
that they have "no idea" who they will vote for in the presidential primary. Only 8% of New Hampshire
Democrats and only 6% of the state's Republicans have "definitely decided who"
they will support.