National Primary Polls Offer Some Insights

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By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News director of surveys

Do national polls about the nomination mean anything now?

National polls can not predict what will happen in the early primary states. Iowa and New Hampshire, after all, are different from the rest of the country, both demographically and psychologically. Voters there know more about the candidates: Many people have met more than one candidate - and some have met them more than once. For months, they have been seeing campaign ads and going to campaign events, while people in the rest of the country may just be waking up to the election.

In a nationwide poll that CBS News and The New York Times conducted just before the 1984 New Hampshire Democratic primary, Walter Mondale held what CBS News and The Times characterized as the largest lead ever seen in national polls in the race for a nomination. Fifty-seven percent of Democratic primary voters in that poll chose Mondale, and only 7 percent chose Gary Hart. However, the day after that poll was reported, Gary Hart beat Mondale handily in the New Hampshire primary. Mondale did go on to win the nomination (and lose the election), but the timing of our poll report, and its discrepancy with the New Hampshire outcome raised many questions. Should we even have conducted a national poll before a primary that would mean more to the nomination process than any national poll?

The lesson of 1984 is not to put too much trust in national polls as predictors of primary outcomes. Is there anything that we CAN learn about voters from national polls now? We can certainly see if there are differences between the general population and the people who say they will vote in the primaries or caucuses. We can also gather clues about the possible composition of the primary electorate. Do the most likely voters seem committed to certain candidates? Do they have different issue preferences?

And what does it mean when registered voters say they are "likely" to vote in a primary? We can find out if they have voted before, and if they are DEFINITELY committed to voting this time.

For example, 41 percent of all adults interviewed in the most recent CBS News Poll said that they expected to vote in a Democratic primary or caucus next year. That number is far too high to be the actual turnout next year (it's likely to be less than half that). When pressed, just over half that group - 57 percent (23 percent of all adults interviewed) -- say they will "definitely" vote. The rest describe their prospects of voting as probable or less.

Some types of people are more likely than others to insist they will vote in next year's Democratic selection process. For example, the "definite" Democratic primary voters are older and better educated than those who admit they are only "probably" going to vote. However, at least in our mid-September poll, men and women, and white and black voters, are equally likely to say they will definitely vote.

Six in ten of the Democratic primary voters say they voted in the 2004 primaries. That's not unusual. In Iowa in 2004, about half the caucus-goers had voted in 2000, but half had not. Candidates, especially those who aren't well known, are counting on finding new participants who might vote for newer, less-well-known hopefuls.

But so far, no candidate nationally seems to be luring those less-active voters to make a commitment, and the majority of those who say they definitely will vote in the Democratic primaries and caucuses say they've done this before. Only one in four of the "definite" primary voters this year did not vote in a Democratic primary or caucus four years ago.

And despite concern about the war in Iraq, that issue may not necessarily be bringing new voters to Democratic primary polling places. Regular primary voters are even more worried about the war than those voters who may join the process this year. They are more negative about the war in general and about the administration of George W. Bush; and they are somewhat more likely to want to bring U.S. troops home soon.

Are the most committed Democratic primary voters different in their vote preference? Not all that much. Definite voters are less undecided. Hillary Clinton leads Barack Obama 43 percent to 22 percent among all Democratic primary voters, and she has an even larger lead, 50 percent to 20 percent, among those who say they will "definitely" vote. She holds a 48 percent to 22 percent lead among those who both voted in the 2004 Democratic primaries AND who definitely will vote again this year. Obama's strongest group, young voters, are more likely to say they "might" vote than to say they definitely will. John Edwards has about the same percentages with all categories of voters.

And there is one important caveat: given the U.S. primary process, many of these "definite" voters nationwide will indeed vote; but they may discover that, by the time their vote are cast, it doesn't matter much. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will have once again made "their" decision for them!
By Kathy Frankovic