WASHINGTON – There were plenty of losers in the New Hampshire primary, but nobody took a beating like the pollsters who uniformly failed to predict Hillary Clinton’s victory over Barack Obama.

Pollsters accurately predicted John McCain’s comeback win in the GOP race. They nailed John Edwards’ third-place finish among Democrats. But at least a dozen polls had the senator from Illinois defeating Sen. Clinton, often soundly, a king-sized miscalculation felt from the pundits’ chairs to the polling booths where independents may have bypassed a seemingly secure Obama.

“It was a debacle,” asserted David Moore, a former senior analyst with the Gallup Organization who now is affiliated with the University of New Hampshire. “What it shows is that we’re not polling correctly and we’re not telling the truth about the nature of the electorate,” Moore said.

Surprised pollsters defended their methods but likely will be more careful in the weeks ahead when gauging the true support for candidates and perhaps when dealing with the issue of race.

Clinton’s stunning win was triggered by a late and uncommonly large shift in sentiment, with 18 percent of New Hampshire voters making up their minds on the last day, according to exit polls.

They shifted for a variety of reasons, among them Clinton’s wise decision to stress the economy. Several memorable moments in the campaign’s final days may also have played a key role: Clinton’s tearful moment displaying a measure of vulnerability; the sense that other Democrats were ganging up on her; and Bill Clinton’s angry accusation that the news media were uncritical of Obama.

No such moments occurred in the Republicans’ campaign.

The underlying problem was pollsters’ failure to gauge soft support for Obama and the number of voters who had firmly made up their minds. Most New Hampshire surveys reported their undecideds among Democrats in the single digits when, in fact, about 20 percent were undecided and another quarter or so were wavering.

Moore argues that some pollsters push voters to pick candidates when they haven’t made up their minds so as to arrive at a more complete prediction of the outcome.

“The pollsters don’t want to say that 47 percent are undecided, and neither does the news media,” said Moore, the author of “The Opinion Makers,” a forthcoming book on polling.

Right

Del Ali turned out to be the most accurate overall in his surveys for the Concord Monitor, correctly predicting Sen. McCain’s nearly 6-point victory and concluding that Obama was ahead of Clinton by just 1 point – with a 5-point margin of error. (Ali’s Research 2000 is polling for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this election cycle.)

Ali suggested that race may have played a role if voters in overwhelmingly white New Hampshire were not being truthful when they said that they planned to vote for Obama. Pollsters must discern whether voters felt obligated because of social pressures to say they were voting for a minority candidate when they had no intention of doing so. One way is to match candidate preferences with separate favorability ratings accorded those seeking office.

“My point is maybe that polling organizations didn’t sufficiently deal with race. I think that theory is as plausible as any I’m hearing,” he said.

Zogby

A final tracking poll by Zogby International for Reuters and C-SPAN showed Obama winning by 13 points. John Zogby noted on his Web site that late-breaking voters can wreak havoc with survey predictions and that he never had seen 18 percent of voters made up their minds on the last day. He said pollsters may have been overly focused on Obama’s strength among young voters and independents and missed the huge turnout of older women that contributed heavily to Clinton’s win.

Zogby also pointed in an interview to the “feistiness” of New Hampshire voters unwilling to rubber-stamp Iowa’s choice of Obama. He added that the dramatically front-loaded primary also had something to do with the survey uncertainty.

“Normally we live out the Iowa bumps for candidates, things settle and the campaign begins in earnest,” he said.

Gallup, too, concluded that Obama was leading by whopping 13 points in its final survey for USA Today.

Such large margins, similar to campaigns’ internal polls, had a bearing on what candidates did and how they planned in the run-up to the vote.

Obama, for instance, campaigned cautiously, seemingly ready to accept the conclusion by analysts that his nomination was inevitable. Clinton, on the basis of the polls, took pains to project a friendlier image, shook up her staff and started preparing for a Feb. 5 reckoning when some two dozen states, Missouri and Illinois among them, will cast ballots.

Frank Newport, the Gallup Poll’s editor in chief, noted in a video on Gallup’s web site that the Clinton’s victory was a surprise to pollsters, one he attributed to voters, especially women, changing their minds.

“It may have been that emotional burst of tears video that was shown so much on television and on the Internet did, in fact, change voters minds,” he said.


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