Is Hillary Still Ahead In New Hampshire?

Is Hillary Still Ahead In New Hampshire?
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As if this primary cycle weren’t interesting enough already, the most recent poll out of New Hampshire shows Hillary Clinton trailing Bernie Sanders by seven points, 44 percent to 37 percent.  Should we buy it?

The “yes/no” dichotomy rarely serves us well in election analysis. All data have some value to them, and we should generally be reluctant to dismiss data outright simply because they do not conform to our previously held assumptions. It’s simply, or perhaps not so simply, a matter of figuring what that value is, and then how much we should adjust our prior beliefs on the basis of those data.

So as with most things, the reality here is complicated. On the one hand, this is the only poll that has ever shown Clinton down, and it shows her down, suddenly, by a fairly impressive margin.  It also shows her support dropping below 40 percent for the first time ever, after having being fairly stable since March.  And while Franklin Pierce is a well-respected pollster, it isn’t among the more active ones in the Granite State.

All polls have error margins, and some polls will have results outside of those error margins, methodological issues aside. It’s entirely plausible to conclude that the true value of the race is simply outside the error margins of the poll (which, if there’s no “herding” or methodological tinkering, should happen once every 20 polls), without discounting the data entirely or disparaging the source.

At the same time, though, we should bear in mind that polls that first appear to be outliers turn out to signal trends all of the time.  In fact, significant shifts in races start out with polls that look like outliers. Take New Hampshire, in just the past year: The Morning Consult poll from early June that showed the Democratic race moving toward single digits looked like an outlier, until we received a confirming poll from Suffolk University that showed the same result. The University of New Hampshire poll of the Shaheen-Brown Senate race in August 2014 that showed a two-point race looked like an outlier, until we received subsequent polling showing another single-digit lead for Shaheen, followed by a tie. We should also keep in mind that the trend line in New Hampshire does currently point toward Hillary Clinton falling behind soon. Even if she’s not down by seven points, she may still be behind, or tied.

So how do we evaluate this? The safest course is to simply wait for additional polling and see if this result is repeated. Given the contested nature of both races, we should be getting more polling soon enough.  And we should remember that even if Clinton does fall behind in New Hampshire, any would-be challenger still faces the daunting challenge of unseating her in the subsequent, far less demographically friendly, contests that follow.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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