Conflicting Polls

Disparate results indicate that all bets are off in Iowa with the caucuses so close.

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So much for belief in polls:

Just two days before tomorrow's caucuses, two major political polls taken in Iowa were released showing very different results for the two Democratic front-runners. I've never been a big believer in polls taken months before an election. But I usually start to become more of a believer once the vote is close. In this case, it's alarmingly close for such disparate results.

The first poll, by CNN, revealed the following results: "Among Democrats, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York wins the most support, with 33 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers backing Clinton and 31 percent supporting Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. But taking into account the survey's sampling error of 4.5 percentage points in the Democratic race, the race is virtually tied."

Much to CNN's credit, the difference in this poll is duly noted as being within the statistic margin of error. But then compare those results with this poll and the much larger gap, which beat the margin of error in the opposite direction:

"A new poll by the Des Moines Register newspaper shows Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama ahead of Senator Hillary Clinton in Thursday's Iowa caucuses. The poll indicates Obama is supported by 32 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers, while Clinton has 25 percent support and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards 24 percent. The newspaper says its telephone survey involved 800 likely Democratic caucus-goers, with a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points."

What's the message here? Two words: Nobody knows. Iowa is relatively meaningless in political terms. Iowa's demographics are not representative of the nation as a whole, and the percentage of citizens who take part in the caucuses is small, at 6 or 7 percent.

The caucuses are meaningful in other ways. They are a boon to the Iowa tourism trade and to Iowa media, which rakes in a ton of political advertising income. They brighten up an otherwise dreary Midwest winter.

And they give journalists something to write about in an otherwise uneventful time of the year, particularly this year, when they are set so close to the holidays.