The great poll crash of 2008

“America in Search of Itself” is what the late Theodore White called a book of his about the presidential elections between 1956 and 1980. The title’s not a bad description of what happens every four years, of how we look at ourselves and candidates and try to figure out where we are, where we want to go and who might lead the way.

It’s sometimes an exciting exercise, but inexact and exasperating. Among those who make it less endearing are the pollsters telling us what we will learn soon enough anyway and members of the press who think it their bounden duty to dwell obsessively on strategies, tactics and just about anything except what the candidates are saying and its possible resemblance to any discernible reality.

In the Democratic primary in New Hampshire this past week, much of that was smashed. Happily, wonderfully, marvelously smashed.

Nine different polling organizations had Barack Obama winning, and winning big. One of them, Gallup, showed Obama galloping across the horizon with as much as a 13-point advantage. Hillary Clinton was supposedly washed up, finished, a mere wave of the hand from the distant, pre-primary past. The outcome, we all know, was different. Clinton won with 39 percent of the vote. Obama had 36 percent.

So how did the polls go wrong? The answer is that they probably didn’t. I myself read polls voraciously, and I read them in part because I know the best of them are highly trustworthy. I also know they have their limitations.

Polls are not about the future, which is what people like me often want to know. They are about the times during which the polls were taken, and even if that is just hours before you read the results, you are reading about the past in a world that happens to be dynamic, not static. Things can change. Even if there were no other possibility of error — and there always is in anything self-reported — this fact alone would mean that no poll can be taken as the final word of what will happen in the voting booth.

Next question: Do election polls do wrong? Well, there’s this: They are an investigation that affects what they investigate. Through a variety of ways, they can change the outcome of an election and may have this time around.

Stories tell us that Clinton advisers, believing the polls, saw their candidate in deep trouble. No doubt, she did, too, and her fear of ultimate failure may have led to the moment when she almost came to tears in response to a coffee shop question about how she was able to keep going. It wasn’t easy, she said, but she believed in trying to keep the country from falling backward.

“This is very personal for me … it is not just political,” she said in an injured, vulnerable, sincere voice. The thought is that, after seeing this moment on TV, thousands of women were moved to vote for her. I believe it. I am far from being a pro-Hillary Democrat, but I saw it and found myself sympathetic. For maybe the first time ever, I liked her.

Reporters, following not just the polls, but also the herd and their druthers, had pretty much crowned Obama not only the New Hampshire winner, but something close to sure-fire in capturing the Democratic nomination. Editors could avoid these embarrassments by instructing their troops to focus on factual stories related to policy, character and competence, with far less emphasis on strategies, tactics and predictions.

The New Hampshire experience will not change reporting overnight, but maybe it will make some reporters a little more humble, a little more inclined to self-examination. Nor will the experience make polls go away. They shouldn’t; in many ways, they serve us, especially in giving us a more complete picture of the electorate than we could otherwise get.

But if the failure of the polls in the Democratic primary causes people to suspect them a little more, to feel, for instance, that their vote might help make a difference even if the polls indicate otherwise, it will be for the good of all of us as we continue to search for ourselves in 2008.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)