News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

It's the voters, not the polls or pundits

The 24-hour news cycle of cable television has changed the coverage of primaries and elections from reporting the hard facts to interminable speculation, pseudo-analysis, and specious information. The news media and blogs treat the caucuses and primaries as if they are athletic contests, not the complicated process through which voters sift through policies, personalities, and try to determine which candidates most meet their needs and expectations. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have served that purpose. The coverage misses the point, and that is the main reason the polls were so inaccurate in assessing Hillary Clinton's prospects in New Hampshire. They were more involved with creating conflicts and rivalries than with reporting the news of what voters are truly concerned with.

The main factor that currently is driving the presidential campaigns among the voters is the Bush debacle. The Republican Party has been relegated to the role of a minor player on the issues that are driving the voters. That fact is revealed by which party members are taking active parts in the selection of prsidential candidates.

In the Iowa caucuses, 236,000 Democrats came out to register their preferences. The Republicans turned out less than half that number with 116,000. Democrats cast 67 percent of the votes in the Iowa caucuses.

Democrats cast 285,600 votes in the New Hampshire primary. Republicans cast 236,300. The Democrats cast 55 percent of the votes.

The salient fact represented by these numbers is that the Democrats are on the move to take back the country. Republican candidates studiously avoid any identification with the Bush administration.

The polls and speculators about the New Hampshire primary got Hillary Clinton's prospects wrong. To people familiar with statistics and polling the reasons are apparent. The poll organizations had their samples wrong. They did not pick up the fact that women were taking a very hard look at the Democratic candidates.

However, there is a more fundamental error in the business of polling. Polls cannot measure motivations and the reasoning process of respondents. They can only measure the attitudes and opinions within a sample at a given time. The procedures of statistical inference are always loaded with variables and doubt, and at best they can only indicate a trend toward a probability.
There is a dynamic going through the minds of voters that polls did not reflect. The one thing that numbers indicate is that a very large majority of the voters want something totally different from what we've had in the first years of the 21st century. Their opinions of who can best lead us i making the changes in our country will shift hour by hour.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States