So what went on with those Democratic pre-election primary polls in New Hampshire. My take on it is that we don’t yet know what happened. But the fact that it involved all polls (including both the Clinton and Obama campaigns by all reports) and those same pollsters tabbed the Republican outcome correctly, points to something occurring on the ground Tuesday.
Maybe the polling methodology was universally off-base or perhaps pollsters simply stopped polling too soon to catch an amazing Clinton surge in the final day (both are plausible given the turnout and vagaries of the New Hampshire primary electorate; see this report from the networks’ chief exit pollster.
The post-mortems have begun (for example, here from ABC News and Gallup) and at least one pollster appears to be revising history for his New Hampshire tracking poll. I’m not sure how someone can claim that his data showed Clinton behind by only 2 points on the last day of polling while his rolling average actually increased Obama’s lead from 10 to 13 points. (And I’m pretty sure my New Jersey high school had a decent math program.)
A number of observers have focused on the potential race factor (specifically, white respondents telling a pollster they would vote for a black candidate but casting their ballots otherwise). That may be partially the case, but at present there is little supporting evidence. First of all, in past instances where a candidate’s race has been a factor in polling miscalls, it was in general elections, where white Democrats OVERstated their propensity to support their party’s black nominee. In New Hampshire, we are only considering Democratic or Democratic-leaning independents voting in a primary. Furthermore, Obama’s support was not over-stated in the polls. Clinton’s was understated.
So for race to play a significant factor in the New Hampshire polls’ universal failure, you would have to accept the premise that white, less-educated, likely Democratic primary voters who chose NOT to speak to pollsters were significantly more racist than white, less-educated, likely Democratic primary voters who did answer the pre-election polls. And moreover, that this same group was significantly LESS sexist, because they overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton.
Unlike some pundits who are currently hitting the airwaves and print media with the certainty of their speculations, I’ll withhold judgment on what really happened until we have time to sift through the empirical evidence and get some REAL NUMBERS.
Regardless, the New Hampshire experience is another opportunity to remind poll watchers that pre-election preference polls are just that – polls which measure voters’ preferences prior to an election. The fact that they are generally good predictors of the eventual outcome is in part a testament to the fact that change is usually gradual. Or at least slow enough to be caught the day or two before an election … fickle electorates like New Jersey’s notwithstanding.