I think I have an answer to a question I posed in this blog on Monday. The question was what accounts for the change in the Republican New Hampshire polls over Christmastime. John McCain went up from 21 percent in pre-Christmas December polls to 32 percent in polls taken between Christmastime and the Iowa caucuses January 3. Mitt Romney fell from 32 to 27 percent, and Rudy Giuliani fell from 16 to 10 in the same period. No one except for Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg conducted any New Hampshire interviews from December 21 to 26.
The answer came to me as I was speaking at a luncheon panel on the Middle East and U.S. politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. Someone in the audience asked what effect a terrorist incident would have. Peter Beinart, formerly editor of the New Republic and now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto had little effect, since Mike Huckabee, the candidate with the least experience in foreign policy, won the Iowa caucuses. A reasonable comment.
However, I said, I think the assassination and the apparent chaos in Pakistan may have helped John McCain in New Hampshire. Then it occurred to me. The Bhutto assassination took place December 27. No respondent in the pre-Christmas December polls or in the LAT/Bloomberg poll knew about it. But every respondent or just about every respondent in the Christmas-to-Iowa polls knew about it. The assassination may have prompted many voters to switch to McCain, the longtime advocate of the surge, as the candidate with the most defense and foreign policy experience.
In Iowa, there were 14 polls conducted between Christmas and the night before the caucuses (six of which began interviewing on December 26) and 15 polls conducted earlier in December (including the December 20-26 LAT/Bloomberg). Here's the corresponding table for those results:
|Earlier in December||9||23||32||9||5||9|
As you can see, McCain goes up 3 percentage points, but Romney goes up 4—comparable movement for a candidate with little foreign policy experience. Thompson goes up 2 points, while Huckabee and Giuliani go down 3 each. This movement is less than that indicated in New Hampshire. One factor may be that McCain campaigned hardly at all in Iowa. Also, Romney arguably seemed to have more foreign policy experience than Huckabee.
The national numbers show somewhat more movement. However, only two national polls were conducted between Christmas and the Iowa caucuses; presumably most news organizations decided to spend their money on Iowa and New Hampshire. There were 13 pre-Christmas December national polls. Here's the table:
|Earlier in December||14||19||23||15||11|
This is a picture that is more like that in New Hampshire. McCain rises 6 points and Giuliani rises 5 (he was declining in New Hampshire, where he was scarcely present after Christmas). Romney is down a whopping 9 points, losing half his support, and Huckabee is down 2 points.
What about other states? Michigan had two pre-Christmas December polls and two post-Iowa and pre-New Hampshire polls.
|Earlier in December||15||19||17||10||4|
Florida had two post-Christmas polls, one the day before New Hampshire, the other afterward, when McCain might have gotten a bounce from his win there. It had six pre-Christmas December polls.
|Earlier in December||11||17||20||27||10|
South Carolina had five post-Iowa polls, two of them post-New Hampshire, from which McCain seems clearly to have gotten a bounce. It had eight pre-Christmas December polls.
|Earlier in December||11||18||25||14||15|
The Iowa polls don't do much to support my theory that the Bhutto assassination swung voters toward McCain. But the national polls provide some support, and the polls in Michigan, Florida, and South Carolina provide quite a bit. Others may disagree, but I think that the Bhutto assassination—and the prospect of chaos in Pakistan—did swing voters toward McCain, and that partially or wholly accounts for his sudden jump in support in New Hampshire during the days when the pollsters quit calling. By the way, as my original post noted, support for the Democratic candidates in New Hampshire was pretty much the same before and after Christmas.