The Night the Pollsters Got It Wrong

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Hillary Clinton won. Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter Sign Up Thank you for signing up! By clicking submit,

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Hillary Clinton won.

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Not only did Barack Obama miss an opportunity to put the race for the Democratic nomination away with a second solid win over the erstwhile front-runner, but he’s now going to be on his heels for a bit as he seeks to explain how he fell so far short of expectations.

And Hillary, with an against-the-flow victory—as of this writing, her margin over Obama was 3 percentage points—has exactly the “comeback” narrative she was looking for after her disaster in Iowa.

On the Republican side, Mr. McCain beat Mitt Romney by seven percent, breathing life into a candidacy that had been considered all but dead only six months ago.

“We sure showed ’em what a comeback looks like,” Mr. McCain told his supporters in a victory speech.

For Mr. Romney, the former Governor of neighboring Massachusetts, the loss is the second devastating result in a state where he had invested heavily in advertising, infrastructure and energy. Deprived of a clear frontrunner, the Republican field is now wide open. Rudy Giuliani, who briefly stood near the top of the polls in New Hampshire, suffered a fourth-place finish behind the Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee. As Mr. McCain gave his speech, the Giuliani campaign sent an email to reporters informing them that he would be in Florida.

Even before the final results were in on the Democratic side, but when it was clear that the race would be close, Mrs. Clinton’s aides were declaring victory.

“Over the past 72 hours, people have been responding to the fact that Hillary Clinton has been working her heart out,” said Phil Singer, a campaign spokesman.

Privately, aides compared even a close result to a political “nuclear bomb” going off.

Tactically speaking, that’s not wrong.


Expectations following Mr. Obama’s thumping victory in the Iowa caucuses were enormous, fed, as always, by an almost hysterical level of hype in the media. With just five days separating the two contests, the reeling Clinton campaign had seemed at a loss to find an answer for the traditional post-Iowa bounce. The Clinton campaign itself seemed genuinely surprised by the results: according to an aide, their internal polling had showed Mr. Obama up by about 15 points the day before the primary.

“We assumed that we were dead,” said the aide.

Certainly, panic had set in, with the campaign undergoing a reported shake-up on primary night. Mrs. Clinton had set about the business of dismantling her once-vaunted political machine, reshuffled staff at the very top of her campaign, replacing one longtime confidante, Patti Solis Doyle, with another, Maggie Williams, as campaign manager. As of last night’s showing, the role of the campaign’s senior strategist and pollster, Mark Penn, remained unclear. New Clinton loyalists were being brought in while staffers privately aired harsh feelings about the different forces within the campaign.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, will have now have to deal with the consequences of their failure to meet the radically inflated expectations that were set, and encouraged by them, in the days after their Iowa triumph.


Friday, Jan. 4, 12 a.m.
In the air with Mark Penn, somewhere between Des Moines and Nashua, N.H.

The MD-80 airplane took off from Des Moines, Iowa, bound for Nashua, N.H., carrying Jay Carson, Terry McAuliffe, and the members of the press corps that have been following Hillary Clinton throughout her 2008 presidential campaign.

At about 2 a.m., Mark Penn, chief strategist for the Clinton campaign, addressed the reporters. He spoke for more than a half hour.

“We need to win Feb. 5,” he told them, as they faced a long, five-day slog through frozen New Hampshire in Mrs. Clinton’s footsteps.

Friday, Jan. 4, 8 a.m.
With Bill Clinton in a hangar in Nashua

“Are you ready?” former President Bill Clinton asked. Mr. Clinton is extremely popular in New Hampshire. He wore a pink shirt. He was talking to a few hundred of his wife’s supporters, who were carefully displayed before an enormous American flag in an airport hangar in Nashua, where his wife’s first stump speech in the New Hampshire primary was about to take place.

“We got in at 4:30 last night. I think my girls look good,” he said. “Don’t you?”

The Night the Pollsters Got It Wrong