06/06/2008 03:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Moore: The Frontrunner Myths

Today's Guest Pollster article comes from David W. Moore, a senior fellow with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. He is a former vice president and senior editor with the Gallup Poll, where he worked for 13 years, and is the founder and former director of the UNH Survey Center. He manages the blogsite, Skeptical

Eons ago, it seems, the press was touting Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton as the dominant frontrunners in their respective party presidential contests. The press was wrong in doing this, of course, but the pollsters told them that was true, and journalists believed. Now ABC's Gary Langer has taken a "Look Back" at the 2008 primary season, and once again endorsed the myth of the two frontrunners:

"It was going to be short and simple: Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani. Those were the long-ago and far-away days of initial preferences, when the two best-known candidates held commanding leads for their parties' presidential nominations. That it didn't end that way underscores an eternal truth of American politics: Campaigns matter."

I agree with Langer that campaigns matter, but disagree with his starting point. Indeed, that Giuliani was ever proclaimed the frontrunner is perhaps the most amazing myth of this whole campaign season.

The contest for delegates, as everyone knows, begins with voting in Iowa and continues from state to state, with election results in the early states inevitably affecting the results in later states. During the time that Giuliani enjoyed his so-called "commanding" frontrunner status (in the summer and fall of 2007), he was not the frontrunner in any of those early state contests - not in Iowa, not in New Hampshire, not in Michigan, not in Nevada, and not in South Carolina. He was the frontrunner in Florida, but if he didn't win any of the previous contests, it wasn't likely he would even be viable, much less the national frontrunner, by the time that primary was held.

This isn't just 20-20 hindsight.1 Right from the beginning, critics challenged the media pollsters' use of "national Republicans" and "national Democrats" as indicative of what the voters were thinking. In fact, Langer acknowledged the problem back in July 2007, and it's worth citing his response:

"A colleague here sent me a nice pointed challenge to our latest election poll yesterday: National surveys by themselves are 'close to meaningless,' he said, because they measure national preferences in what'll really be a series of state caucuses and primaries.

"It's a fair complaint, and a serious one - because it cuts to the heart of just what our new survey, and its multifarious brethren, are all about.
It's true, of course, that a poll of current preferences nationally does not tell us about current preferences in Iowa, New Hampshire or anywhere else. Without knowing who's thriving in Iowa and New Hampshire, it's hard to predict who survives to South Carolina, much less who wins where on Mega Tuesday and wakes up with the crown on Feb. 6....

"We ask the horse race question in our national polls for context - not to predict the winner of a made-up national primary."

Langer is absolutely right - national polls of the party faithful don't predict state winners, and without an idea of who they might be, there's no way to tell who the nominee might be. By this reasoning, no matter how well Giuliani might have been faring in the national polls, that said nothing about how he might do in the state contests and in his effort to win the presidential nomination. So, on what grounds was he the frontrunner?

It turns out, apparently, that all along ABC was using the national numbers of what Langer calls the "made-up primary" not just "for context," but in fact to predict the winner of the actual nomination process. That's the only way in which Giuliani could be called a frontrunner.

Of course, ABC was not alone. Every major media polling organization reported results, at one time or another, based on that "made-up national primary." And in the summer and fall of 2007, they all reported that Giuliani was the dominant frontrunner - while ignoring that he trailed in all of the early state contests.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton was hardly the "solid" favorite as virtually every major news organization claimed. It's true the polls showed her leading in the several primary states after Iowa, but in this latter state she was never dominant. She trailed John Edwards for the first seven months of 2007, until she moved into a modest lead in the late summer and fall. But there were many undecided voters, and if she lost in Iowa, who could predict how she might fare elsewhere? Howard Dean's experience four years earlier, when his leading status in New Hampshire evaporated in the two-day period following his loss in the Iowa Caucuses, should have been a cautionary note for pollsters.

The reality was that in the summer and fall of 2007, there was no Republican frontrunner, and the Democratic frontrunner had only a tenuous lead. That so many pundits and politicians and members of the general public still think otherwise, because that's what the pollsters told us, should be the biggest embarrassment of the polling industry since Dewey beat Truman in 1948.

1 For my take on this matter last October 2007, see this post.