Assessing the Poor New Hampshire Polls

The number of independents and the opinion of women may not have been factored correctly.

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New Hampshire voters have a long tradition of ignoring Iowa caucusgoers. I have written in this space several times about the inconsequentiality of Iowa—at least in terms of its representation of American voters as a whole. New Hampshire feels similarly about Iowa.

But Hillary Clinton's historic win in New Hampshire stymied even the most seasoned pundits and pollsters. Why were the polls so wrong?

A refresher course on pre-New Hampshire polling shows us:

Polls released Tuesday had Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., with a 5- to 13-percentage-point lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., in the Granite State, but Clinton defeated Obama.... Pre-election polls...showed Obama and Clinton about evenly splitting female voters and Obama winning men by a margin of 2 to 1. But Clinton won among women by 13 percentage points, exit polls showed.

There are other possible explanations for the errors, this one from the Economist:

New Hampshire independents can vote in either primary. More than expected may have voted in the Republican primary; perhaps they thought Mr Obama had the Democratic vote locked up. (Mr Obama does much better than Mrs Clinton among Republicans and independents.) Women also voted heavily for Mrs Clinton, in contrast to female voters in Iowa. Perhaps a moment of emotion, when she almost cried on Monday while answering a question about the stresses of the campaign, made her seem more human to women.

But here's mine, which almost all the other pundits are missing. A highly placed person in the Clinton camp told me late yesterday that the campaign had not foreseen the huge turnout of younger women in Iowa and thus did not target them. They targeted them more intensely in New Hampshire, with appearances by Chelsea Clinton and more campus speeches by Senator Clinton. I was warned in this same exchange, however, that the Clinton camp thought "three days might not be enough to turn things around." Turned out it was enough. Clinton lost women overall to Obama in Iowa, but she won the vote of women 45-plus there. Women overall in New Hampshire and particularly older female voters supported her. Pundits should be more careful to parse the so-called women's vote into what it really is—-several different categories of women: young and old, rich and poor, white and of color.

Maybe it was the teary-eyed episode that made Clinton appear more vulnerable. Maybe it was the campaign's targeted techniques affecting how younger women voted. Perhaps it was differences in turnout among younger female voters. Maybe it was something else entirely. Whatever it was, it worked.

Now the comparisons of her unexpected win with others:

Historical comparisons are already being drawn between the New Hampshire primary and the famous 1948 presidential race in which President Harry S. Truman beat Republican challenger Thomas Dewey, despite the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the Chicago Tribune. Yet the magnitude of the Clinton surprise is arguably even greater. Indeed, historical research by Professors Paul Rhode of the University of Arizona and Koleman Strumpf of Kansas University has shown that in the Truman-Dewey race, prediction markets had seen hope for President Truman despite his dreadful polling numbers, and he was rated an 11% chance of winning the election by election-eve. Thus, Sen. Clinton's victory on Tuesday was more surprising than President Truman's in 1948.

Lastly, let me say that despite Clinton's New Hampshire victory, this race is anything but over. It has become a two-way race on the Democratic side, but both Clinton and Obama could still just as easily win the nomination.