Thursday, August 23, 2007

Numbers and Notes - Perception is Reality

In electoral politics, perception is reality. It did not matter whether George Bush was a “Compassionate Conservative” or not (Heartless Fascist would be a more accurate description), the belief that he was one helped him in the election. It doesn’t matter whether Hillary is a Left-wing Witch or not (Moderate Witch is probably more accurate, but perhaps she’s really a sweetheart), the public perception of that drives her high unfavorability ratings. The nature of a race, especially a primary race, where the candidates do not have bold policy differences, can easily be determined by the public’s perception of the race itself. No perception is more important under those circumstances than the inevitability of victory.
While those who analyze polling data professionally constantly point out that relatively few voters are paying attention to the campaign and that history tells us that once things intensify with actual votes being imminent there is a large change in voters’ allegiances, even fewer people are hearing those admonitions than are paying attention to the campaign. The news media, in particular, tend to treat polling numbers like they were handed down from Mt. Sinai, rather than just acquired by minimum-wage callers or zero-wage computers. A two-point shift is a trend, a four point drop a collapse, and a marginally significant lead is considered insurmountable. The media also enjoys the horse race far more than it does the underlying issues. And they are very bad at covering a whole field of horses, so they narrow it down as much as possible. In the Democratic primary race, that last part has become Clinton vs. Obama. Yes, they mention Edwards, but he’s clearly the third guy, and because of his lack of movement in the numbers, he’s actually less interesting to them than Richardson.
The Gallup Poll, along with being the most famous, is also the most widely quoted. In that poll, Hillary’s lead over Obama is over 20 points. More important, she is at 48%, which, for those of you who are numerically challenged, is very close to a majority. Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll has Hillary’s lead about half of that. Even worse for those men in the race, Hillary’s state-by-state numbers, especially in the big February 5th primaries, are even better. Combining these elements, there is a growing sense of inevitability to Hillary’s nomination.
We can point out forever that no votes have been cast (true), that little advertising money has been spent (also true), and that prior year frontrunners in the Democratic Party have a spotty history of success (true again). The fact still remains that while we are still five months from any votes being cast, we are only six months from the race being over. That last fact changes everything. The February 5th frontloading has changed the entire process. When exactly is the public going to focus on the race, between Thanksgiving and Christmas? There is little reason to believe people focus on anything but family and shopping in that timeframe. In fact, family gatherings could be interesting conversation areas, with those who have opinions formed convincing those who don’t, and could be more important than subsequent commercials.
The aura of inevitability helps raise money and just as important, dries up money for others. Nobody wants to endorse a loser, if the bandwagon is about to leave, you’d better be on it. Notice how organized labor didn’t endorse anyone. Hillary Clinton may be anathema to the AFL-CIO, but they don’t dare oppose her.
A month ago, Obama staffers told The Politico that the polls didn’t bother them, that they were planning on winning Iowa and New Hampshire and turning things around then, so they would be patient. The first time Hillary went over 40% in the Gallup Poll, that all changed. Obama got more aggressive toward Clinton, publicly fighting with her and drawing very public distinctions. Unfortunately for him, the numbers didn’t move. Make no mistake, they know they can’t wait until January to break down her numbers. There are already signs that more Democrats are feeling positively toward Hillary. I interpret those as the feeling that she is likely to be the nominee, so people guess they should start looking at her positives. As for me, I may be pregnant, but I refuse to pretend I’m in love. I believe Hillary will be a disaster for the party and a disaster for the country. The aura of inevitability surrounding her means she must be attacked directly. The lesser candidates can play a part here, but Kucinich, who could easily play a big part in this, is intoxicated with himself. Biden and Dodd are big on Senatorial courtesy and Biden probably has a cabinet position in mind. I believe something big has to happen before January or Hillary will win. Patience may be a virtue, but in this case, it could be fatal.

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