Friday, December 22, 2006

Hillary's electability: conventional wisdom trumps an inconvenient poll

As I mentioned in a print column not long ago, the conventional wisdom persists that prospective presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is not electable in 2008. Since I consider that assumption to be highly flawed, I was therefore eager to read the current edition of Newsweek, which features a cover story on the same topic.

I finally made time to read it last night. The article was quite skeptical about Clinton’s chances, citing the considerable “anti-Hillary sentiment in the country. The key passage: “A recent Marist Poll showed that 47 percent of respondents nationwide ‘definitely will not consider’ voting for her, a percentage that alarms some former aides to President Clinton. Those numbers will need to change for Democratic primary voters -- now comfortable with assessing electability -- to move her way.”

But there’s a big problem with the Newsweek story: The magazine had, in its possession, the results of its own new national poll…showing that, when Clinton is matched against John McCain, she currently beats him by seven points; and that, when she is matched against Rudy Giuliani, she beats him by one point; and that, when she is matched against Mitt Romney, she slaughters him by 26 points.

And yet Newsweek decided not to include this information in its skeptical take on Clinton’s electability.

I know about these poll results only because Newsweek shared its poll results in a separate press release ballyhooing the cover story. Check out the release here. You will need to scroll 60 percent of the way down the page to the fine print.

Hence, my question: Why would Newsweek run a Clinton electability story without including its own latest poll numbers?

It turns out that others were wondering as well. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham gave media watchdog Greg Sargent an explanation a few days ago: “(The Newsweek poll) numbers were eight, nine, 10 days old. This poll was in the field on Wednesday and Thursday (Dec. 6 and 7). The numbers informed our reporting; we routinely poll on questions that we may not end up specifically citing in the issue.”

That defense doesn’t hold water. If he was so concerned that his own Hillary-favorable poll numbers were “old,” then why did the story cite Hillary-averse poll numbers that were even older? The Marist survey, described in the story s “recent,” was actually conducted in late November.

Meacham also said suggested that “horse race” polls, pitting candidates against each other, are essentially meaningless at this point, and hence not necessarily worth citing. True enough, they do need to be viewed skeptically. But it nevertheless seems worth noting that Hillary Clinton’s horse race numbers have markedly improved. She trailed McCain throughout 2006 in the early match-up surveys – yet now, according to Newsweek, she is ahead. (And another new poll, this one by CNN, now shows her dead even with McCain and two points up on Giuliani.)

I’d suggest two reasons for this potential trend that Newsweek did not find relevent to its story: Starting with the elections on Nov. 7, the overall political landscape has shifted in favor of the Democrats, and as a result a sizeable share of voters now seem willing to view Clinton more favorably. Secondly, McCain in particular appears to have lost some ground with independent voters, which should be no surprise, given his strong rightward tilt and his support for a U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq that draws support from roughly 12 percent of Americans.

The point is, political moods are fluid and changeable (obviously, they could change again), and for those reasons it would appear that Newsweek missed an opportunity to add necessary nuance to its own work. Especially since it had paid for those poll numbers. But its glaring omission will only feed the flawed convention wisdom about Clinton’s purportedly high hurdle.