Wednesday, January 21, 2004

In defense of polls. There's been a lot of talk since Iowa about how the polls were supposedly all wrong. In fact, they got it exactly right. How they're used is another matter.

Six weeks ago, as we all know, John Kerry's presidential campaign was dead in the water. As Dan Aykroyd's Bob Dole would say, he knew it, we knew it, and the American people knew it. Fundraising dried up. He poured his personal money into the campaign in a desperate attempt to stave off collapse. It got so bad that in New Hampshire, which is close to a must-win state for him, the alternative to Howard Dean increasingly came to be seen not as Kerry but as Wesley Clark.

Now, what if Kerry had ignored the polls? Guess what: he'd be limping into the final week of his campaign. Instead, he shook up his campaign staff. He sharpened his stump speech. And - most important - he pulled up stakes in New Hampshire in favor of running full-time in Iowa during the last few weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

As we now know, Kerry's all-or-nothing gamble on Iowa paid off. But it's not as if no one saw it coming. Several weeks ago the media - including national papers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times - reported that Kerry appeared to be doing a much better job of connecting with ordinary voters in Iowa.

Then, about a week and a half before the caucuses, the Zogby daily tracking polls began to show movement: Kerry and John Edwards up; Dean and Dick Gephardt down. By last Wednesday, with a week to go, Kerry had taken a narrow lead. The last Zogby poll, as well as the Des Moines Register's weekend poll, foresaw the exact order of finish, although not the dramatic margin of Kerry's and Edwards's final tallies.

In other words, it appears that the polls were an accurate reflection of what was happening on any given day. The polls were immensely useful to the Kerry campaign. Where the pundits blew it was in taking those polls and using them to predict what would happen two or more months out. But even here I think it would be wrong to be too harsh. No one has ever come back from the kind of hole Kerry had dug himself into. His conflicted stance on Iraq, and his rococo speaking style, hardly seemed like the tools needed to stage one of the great political comebacks.

And by the way: according to the American Research Group's daily tracking polls in New Hampshire, Kerry's Iowa bounce is for real. The latest numbers show Dean still leading, with 26 percent; Kerry with 24 percent; and Clark at 18 percent, dropping out of the virtual tie he had been in with Kerry. Zogby has it Dean, 25; Kerry, 23; and Clark, 16.

I'm willing to bet if the primary were held today, the results would reflect those numbers. But next Tuesday? Well, we'll just have to wait and see.

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