Sunday, April 08, 2007

The misleading hype of the hypothetical polls

Since Rudy Giuliani and John McCain continue to score well in the polls that match them against the major '08 Democratic players, how come Republicans don't seem to be jumping for joy?

First, the big picture: Democrats would appear to be on a roll. Right now, about 50 percent of Americans describe themselves as Democrats (partisans and leaners), while only 35 percent similarly describe themselves as Republican – the widest pro-Democratic margin ever measured by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which has been tracking party ID since 1990. Just five years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, the two camps were tied at 43 percent each. And even during the Bill Clinton era, Democrats never had more than an eight-point advantage.

Moreover, the aggregate fund-raising figures, announced last week, demonstrate that Democrats are psyched about their ’08 candidates, while Republicans seem underwhelmed about their own. During the first quarter of this year, Democratic donors anted up $78 million for their White House hopefuls; Republicans, $51 million for theirs. In other words, Democrats raised 60 percent of the first-quarter money. Those are astounding figures, given the fact that the GOP is traditionally far more flush. And this statistic, courtesy of the nonpartisan Diaego-Hotline poll, seems worth noting as well: When Americans were asked whether they wanted to see a Democrat or a Republican win the White House in 2008, 47 percent chose the former and only 29 percent chose the latter.

But even though all this is true, actual Republican candidates (Rudy Giuliani, John McCain) are consistently beating actual Democratic candidates (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards) in the early survey match ups.

No matter who does the polling – Time, NBC-Wall Street Journal, Zogby, Fox, Rasmussen, Newsweek – the results have been the same: Giuliani and McCain defeat the Democratic first tier. You’re not likely to see those results advertised on the liberal websites.

But here’s the hitch: You won’t find many Republicans crowing about those results, either. Because they know that the prevailing national mood is working against them. And they know that these early polls generally don’t mean squat.

Consider these hypothetical match ups, taken one year prior to previous presidential elections, culled from the Harris and Gallup surveys:

1. In February 1995, Bob Dole was favored over incumbent President Clinton by 51 to 45 percent. (In November 1996, Clinton beat Dole by 49 to 41 percent.)

2. In March 1991, the senior George Bush was beating Mario Cuomo by 78 to 17 percent, and few even heard of Bill Clinton. (In November 1992, Clinton beat Bush by five points.)

3. In February 1983, Walter Mondale topped incumbent Ronald Reagan, 47 to 41 percent. (In November 1984, Reagan hammered Mondale in a landslide.)

4. In April 1975, incumbent Gerald Ford trailed Ted Kennedy by 50 to 43 percent. (Kennedy never ran, and 19 months later, Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in a squeaker.)

When you see that kind of track record, you have to wonder why pollsters even bother to take these kinds of soundings so far in advance. As Pew polling director Andy Kohut told me the other day, “I don’t put much faith in polls this early, although we do them. The bottom line is that most people don’t really have their juices flowing yet.”

So what explains the current Democratic deficit in the early match ups?

Kohut said, “McCain and Rudy have universal name identification, and that’s helping to boost their numbers, while the general information on Obama and even Edwards is still pretty thin. But these numbers could well change, once people start thinking more intensely about this election. When you look at the shifts in party affiliation, and the poll numbers showing the strong general dissatisfaction with the country’s direction, and the importance of Iraq – well, all these are indicators that the Republicans will be pushing a heavy rock up the hill.”

And that’s basically what Kate O’Beirne said on Meet the Press today. A seasoned political observer at the conservative National Review, she was unimpressed with the McCain and Giuliani numbers. Referring to the GOP’s traditional ownership of the national security issue, she said, “I don’t think it’s the advantage it once was. The Republicans have a real brand problem, brand name problem. It used to be people thought (that although Republicans) might not much like big government, they can run it. Now they seem to…not be able to run it at all. A Democrat has to be favored in ’08. I think any Democrat has to be favored in ‘08, yeah. I think Republicans have a real brand name problem. It—it’s become a competency problem.”

One random thought: If, as O’Beirne argues, the prevailing national mood favors the Democrats despite the early ’08 match up polls, doesn’t that potentially hurt Hillary Clinton the most, since she had been pitching herself as the one candidate who has the toughness and experience to win? If it’s true, as Kohut argues, that Obama and Edwards are trailing right now only because they lack the universal name ID enjoyed by Giuliani and McCain, then how does one easily explain away Clinton’s deficit – when one considers that she has parity with the GOP guys on name ID?

Nevertheless, the general argument is that any Democratic nominee can render these early polls irrelevant and ride the antiwar mood into power. Mark Schulman, Time’s pollster, said on March 29, “If Iraq persists as an issue, all of our polls show that this will undercut Republican candidates. Being seen as ‘close to Bush’ is a real negative in the polls. When the campaign really heats up, the Democrats should have a lot of cards to play.” (McCain seems to be paying the steepest price already. More on this tomorrow.)

And speaking of Iraq, welcome to the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s “liberation.” We’re still waiting for those flowers.