Like nearly everyone else who works in or around politics, I was stunned by Hillary Clinton's victory over Barack Obama in New Hampshire. My expectation of events turned out to be wholly wrong. I am less embarrassed by that, than thrilled that the electorate we dissect so constantly remains capable of delivering such a surprise.
Why not embarrassed? Because the picture we create in our heads of what's occurring in politics--"we" being those of us in the media and in campaigns--is substantially produced by public opinion polls. Polls have gotten harder to execute in recent years for various reasons, from declining participation rates to rise use of cell phones.
But I continue to have high confidence in well-conducted surveys and they form the foundation of most media analysis. The impressions we draw from other sources--campaign rallies and interviews with voters--simply embroider what we learn from polls.
In other words, if the polls are off, our interpretations are off. That's a fact, not buck-passing. Nor do I blame pollsters for being "wrong" in New Hampshire. In some circumstances, accurate polling is very hard to do. And Exhibit A may be a 5 day campaign (the span between the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary) involving two superstar candidates posing the extraordinary prospect of making history by race or gender.
To give you an idea of this process as I experienced it, here's a sequence of events:
--Friday Jan. 4: After an overnight flight from Iowa, I watch a hoarse Barack Obama rouses a crowd in a Portsmouth NH airport hangar. impressed.
--Saturday, Jan. 5: Watch Clinton debate Obama, Edwards and Richardson on ABC. When Edwards sides with Obama by labeled Clinton a defender of the status quo, it seems to reinforce the idea of a "change" election moving against her. Obama's "you're likable enough" comment to Clinton seems a little snarky, but inconsequential. Her "that hurts my feelings" and "Aww John" comments in discussions of her likability and appearances seem funny and winning but also inconsequential.
--Sunday Jan. 6, mid-day: Watch Hillary Clinton pump up a good crowd in a high school gym in Nashua. Polls are showing Obama only slightly ahead in NH. Chat with Clinton campaign aide who wonders where the big Obama bounce is. At that moment it seems a good question.
--Sunday evening: attend a dinner with aides to several candidates. by then new polls are emerging showing Obama widening his lead. Dinner discussion turns on how Clinton will come back from a New Hampshire loss in subsequent states--and whether press bias for Obama is fueling his victory.
--Monday Jan. 7: Clinton gets emotional on campaign trail. When I see the video, I conclude the emotion was genuine and endearing. Others see it as contrived. But from either angle, it doesn't change poll-induced conclusion that she's headed for a substantial defeat.
--Monday evening Jan. 7: Attend final Clinton rally next door to Manchester airport, then Obama rally in Concord. Aides to both (because of the polls) are expecting Obama win and mulling what comes next. Political community rife with speculation about Clinton campaign shakeup--or even the possibility that she'd quit the race before long.
--Tuesday morning Jan. 8: Chat with Clinton advisers in Manchester hotel from which NBC is broadcasting. They are steeling themselves for the task of rousing donors to contribute in the face of Obama's New Hampshire momentum.
--Mid-Day Tuesday Jan. 8: I hear reports of record turnout, so high that Democrats ballots are running scarce in some places. By putting two things together--Obama's lead in the polls, and a surge of voters resembling what happened in Iowa--I discern another sign of impending Clinton defeat and comment accordingly on television.
--Tuesday evening Jan .8: early round of election exit polls point to substantial Obama lead--matching pre-election expectations.
--Later Tuesday evening: next round of exit polling shows Obama ahead by much tighter race. .talk to Clinton aide who's elated at the prospect of finishing a few points behind Obama, which would be sign that Clinton halted his momentum at the 11th hour.
--Still later: NBC News calls New Hampshire for Clinton. Head-scratching all around. Encounter one of the Clinton advisers who was steeling for fund-raising challenge after a New Hampshire defeat and offer congratulations. We were equally shocked by the outcome.
--Wednesday morning Jan. 9: I go on TV to try to explain reversal of fortune. Not easy, since I am actually mystified. Was it women rallying to Clinton after her displays of both grit and vulnerability? Was it a hidden vote against an African-American candidate? Was it the strong criticism of Obama by Bill Clinton, which given the pre-election polls had first looked like desperation? Something else? Who knows.
--Today: The only think that seems clear to me is that this will be the most interesting presidential race of my adult lifetime.
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