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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is It Over?

Walter Shapiro doesn’t think so in his Salon article “Is Hillary running away with the race?” Despite Senator Clinton’s fomidable lead in all recent opinion polls, Shapiro observes:

This year, Hillary Clinton’s wide lead has only increased the long-standing temptation to believe in the polls’ predictive power…But a strong case can be made that these polls are not as definitive as they seem — that they are little more than the political version of dream books that use nighttime visions to predict winning lottery numbers.

Pollsters and poll analysts can be forgiven if they think that’s a little overstated. But then there is this reminder:

Since 1975, only twice has the candidate atop the Democratic field in the national Gallup Polls at this point in the campaign cycle gone on to win the nomination. The exceptions were Al Gore in 1999 and Walter Mondale (47 percent in the November 1983 Gallup Poll), who almost lost the nomination to Gary Hart, who was literally an asterisk in the same survey. And in the November 1991 Gallup Poll, a small-state governor named Bill Clinton was running sixth (yes, sixth) in the Democratic horse race, behind Mario Cuomo and such implausible presidential choices as Jerry Brown and Doug Wilder.

Shapiro points out the GOP horse race polls have a better track record, and adds:

There is a glimmer of an argument that, despite their historic inaccuracy, national polls may have greater forecasting power this year because the primary calendar has been scrunched into a single month, with more than 20 states holding primaries on Feb. 5, just 33 days after the Iowa Republican caucuses. “If we’re going to have a national primary, then national polls may matter because they do measure national name ID,” said Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “But you could make an equally good argument that Iowa and New Hampshire could change everything.”

Shapiro gives fair vent to both sides of the argument about horse race polls’ predictive merit at this stage, with an edge to the skeptics. It’s a good read for poll-watchers of all stripes.

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