Someone Tell the Pundits: Polls Are Piffle

It was like watching a mechanical rabbit spring onto the rail of a greyhound track: Over the weekend, the Des Moines Register reported the results of an October poll showing Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton pulling away from her two main competitors for the Hawkeye State’s January caucus vote. And the nation’s pundit corps rallied to the betting windows.

“There’s no question that Iowa’s outcome will be hugely influential for both parties’ nominees, even more so for the Democrats, whose Iowa winner will get a huge blast of momentum,” burbled Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, whose column sometimes seems like a random search engine for warmed-over Beltway conventional wisdom. Mr. Halperin offered up some pro forma caveats concerning the erratic reliability of Iowa polling—but the frenetic “buzz” surrounding the Register results was something he could scarcely contain.

Senator Clinton’s fellow tenants in the Democratic top tier, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards, must catch up soon, he writes, “to halt her methodical march to the nomination, since Clinton’s current strength in New Hampshire and in national polls mean she must be stopped in Iowa.” In other words, she must be stopped to, um, be stopped.

Such hyperventilating is an early symptom of the great rolling dysfunction known as the presidential primary season. And now, three months ahead of any actual ballot-casting, the brain damage is beginning.

“Polls are meaningful to campaigns, so that they can adjust what they’re saying to appeal to more voters,” says John Haskell, a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, and author of Fundamentally Flawed: Understanding and Reforming American Primaries. “They don’t mean anything in predictive terms. The media, if they were doing their jobs, should point out these types of returns just don’t mean much.”

Look no further, Mr. Haskell said, than the Democratic polling on the eve of the last election cycle.

“It was amazing back in Iowa in 2004—the polls did change a lot the last few days, so that it went from Dean and Gephardt at the front to Kerry and Edwards.”

The latter two placed first and second in the caucus vote, and went on to be the party nominees; the former, all early polling to the contrary, finished third and fourth.

Campaigns well know the extra mileage that the press’s subliterate love affair with primary polling can win them. Hillary campaign operatives “are smart to play the inevitability card”—campaign shorthand for impermeable front-runnerness—“and play it hard,” says Mark Blumenthal, who ran the Mystery Pollster blog before heading up the Disclosure Project, a cross-poll collation of the screens used to filter poll results. “Because that’s what drives coverage.”

And so a positive feedback loop sets in: The front-runner, once anointed, supplies the presumptive motivations to all other comers in the field—every move they make gets interpreted tactically, as a ploy to unseat the field leader. The loop then spreads easily to take in voters’ perception of the wider field. “To the extent that these stories continue saying, ‘It’s Hillary, it’s Hillary, it’s Hillary,’ you see a different dynamic,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

That’s no doubt welcome news to the Clinton campaign, which has long been fighting the notion that she’s too “polarizing” to prevail in a national vote. But it’s also another odd displacement: suborning actual voter preferences to the standard theatrical fluff of pundit speculation. Mr. Blumenthal notes that closer inspection of poll results show that, after all, voters aren’t ultimately motivated by the second-order speculations of who’s the most “electable” candidate in a general election—the sort of wifty reasoning that (combined with boatloads of cash) landed the truly weak candidate John Kerry the party’s nomination in 2004.