Voting with polls is the tail wagging the dog

New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is supposed to be retail politics at its most pure. The idea is that the candidates meet people from all walks of life, in every conceivable kind of setting, and the people make up their minds based on personal, elemental information gathering. At least, that’s the history and the theory.

Which is why a story on WBUR radio this morning was so disturbing. Reporter Fred Thys quotes N.H. primary voter Karen Eckilson at a Romney rally in Petersborough. She tells Thys “I was actually thinking of Huntsman, but I don’t think he can make it,” Eckilson said. “I don’t think he’s electable — poll numbers.”

If people vote based on polls, that diminishes the primary as a way to breathe life into a solid candidate with real potential for making a contribution, who may not have the money or ground organization to come fast out of the gate. Carry that to a logical conclusion, for that matter, and why have people vote at all? Just declare the winner to be the candidate with the greatest percentage of public opinion survey support on the first Tuesday after the first Monday or some other fixed point in time.

Polling is an inexact science, with wide variations in methodologies and margins of error.  Polls often reflect undeveloped opinions and fail to reflect soft and changeable support for the candidates. Even in the entrance polls in Iowa, more than half those who voted for Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum said they hadn’t made up their minds until a day or less before the caucuses. Rick Santorum was ignored by the press because his poll numbers were so low. It’s a vicious cycle, meaningless polls that often reflect name recognition.

Karen Eckilson is not alone in this wag-the-dog scenario. WBUR quotes a Suffolk University report that “Voters seem to be moving away from the former Utah governor [Jon Huntsman]and Texas Rep. Ron Paul toward being undecided again, as they reconsider their choices after the Iowa caucuses.”

If voters went by polls, Hillary Clinton would have been coronated before the first caucus in 2008. I keep thinking about how the late Minnesota Senator Gene McCarthy took his anti-Vietnam War message to every nook and cranny of New Hampshire. Opinion polls showed him at as little as 10 percent support, but he stuck with it. And many voters stuck with him, despite the polling numbers. When he garnered more than 42 percent, Lyndon Johnson announced his intention not to seek reelection as President.

Learning the party building benefits that accrued to the Democrats in 2008 from a drawn-out primary fight, Republicans this year for the first time have scrapped their winner-take-all balloting for the early stage of the process. The goal was to keep more candidates alive longer and kindle voter interest in the race.

If voters succumb to the polls and fail to vote their hearts and minds this early in the campaign, what else are we losing?

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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