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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Perception and Reality

If memory serves, it was the physicist Werner Heisenberg who taught us that you can't measure something without changing it.  In politics, it may be that you can't report on something without changing it.  The latest Des Moines Register polls are great for Huckabee on the Republican side (32%), Obama on the Democratic side (32%) -- and, for those who have been following my posts, not so hot for my candidate Joe Biden (4%, notably lower than any other poll has shown in a month -- and is contradicted by much antecdotal evidence from the campaign trail).

Here's something interesting about these latest poll numbers.  60% of the Democrats polled have never caucused before.  40% of the Republicans polled have never caucused before.  For these polls to be predictive of caucus-goers, it would have to be the case that the caucuses this year produce extraordinary first-time voter turnout, higher first-time turnout than ever before experienced.  Last year, only 20% of the voters at Iowa caucuses were first-time voters. 

But the larger question is this: What is the effect of the poll, regardless of its accuracy -- particularly a poll taken this close to the caucus?  Does it become self-fulfilling?  This type of concern led the national media to agree not to announce the winners in the 2004 presidential contest until all the polls had closed.  People like to go with a winner.  It would be a shame if polls created a winner rather than merely forecasted one.  But I am not sure if we have the polling capacity (or, stated another way, if respondents would be sufficiently self-aware and honest) for us to determine the extent to which polls reflect versus determine outcomes.  Surely (and sadly) these polls must have some effect, however inaccurate.  Antecdontally, I often hear people say, "I love Joe and would vote for him if he could win."   Those of us whose reputations turn on US News and World Reports recognize all the flaws in that system of ranking, but have no doubt of the power of the rankings.  A similar effect seems at play in this election sadly. 

Posted by Wes Oliver on January 1, 2008 at 03:04 PM | Permalink


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