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By Jay Cost

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The Media and Polls

I have commented on this phenomena several times at this blog - but it is worth another mention. It amazes me how poll-driven the analysis of the 2008 presidential race has been. Despite their current lack of value, polls remain a staple of almost all media analysis of the race.

A case in point is an otherwise excellent article from the Boston Globe today about Mitt Romney's rise in New Hampshire. The Globe goes into detail to cover how Romney has been paying attention to the state - by visiting, by advertising, by courting political elites. It's a good story - that is completely junked up by the introduction:

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney boasted an enviable advantage in the first-in-the-nation primary state when he launched his campaign for president: A governor of Massachusetts, he also owned a house on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. But as recently as February, Granite Staters appeared to harbor little interest in the boy next door. Polls had him lagging far behind John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

In the last few months, however, Romney has steadily pushed to the head of the Republican pack in New Hampshire, while his major rivals have lost ground. A mid-July poll had him opening up a 15-point lead.

Romney has benefited from larger forces shaping the race, notably, McCain's difficulties. But he has also run a campaign that might have been lifted straight out of "The Official Guide to Winning the New Hampshire Primary," if there were such a guide to the conventional wisdom. The formula: win over influential activists, advertise early, and lavish New Hampshire with attention.

Romney is leading in New Hampshire. Why? The polls say so. But why do the polls say that?

Perhaps most significantly, at least as far as early polls are concerned, Romney has spent nearly $725,000 since February on television ads highlighting his biography and fiscal conservatism on WMUR-TV, New Hampshire's only network-affiliated commercial station, as well as additional ads on cable stations. Neither McCain nor Giuliani has aired a single television commercial.

"You can't underestimate the importance of having ads right now," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, who has been tracking the race. "It doesn't mean they're going to vote for him necessarily, but he's fresh in their minds."

So, Romney's lead in the polls is due to the fact that he is the only one advertising on television in the state. As of July 1, Rudy Giuliani had $18 million in the bank. Just how much longer will Romney be the only candidate on the air in New Hampshire?

Thus, we should ask: are these polls worthwhile?

Early opinion polls are notoriously poor predictors of primary victors. In July 2000, George W. Bush was well ahead of McCain, who later won the primary by 19 points; Howard Dean towered over his rivals in the summer 2004. And in New Hampshire, Romney has had the luxury of being the only candidate on television for months.

I guess not! So, why does the Globe insist upon framing its story as "Romney has a lead because of all his smart work." This lead might very well be ephemeral. Would it not have been a better story to reference his lead, immediately argue how it is ephemeral, then go into how the lead right now is a consequence of Romney laying down a foundation to win New Hampshire in the winter? Reading the article, it seems clear that this is Andrew Smith's point. Why not turn that into the thesis of the article?

It was the same story over at Meet the Press this week. [Incidentally, this week was one of those weeks that MTP had nobody actually M'ingTP. It was all just journalists and pundits. I'm always struck by weeks like that. It's a sign of the authority of the media's pundit class. Why bring an Obama spokesman on to the show when journalists will come to talk about Obama?] The consensus was that Hillary is the frontrunner. Why? She is leading in the polls.

Unbelievable.

As of July 1, Barack Obama had $36 million in the bank. To argue that Hillary is the frontrunner in a way that is relevant is to argue that she will remain the frontrunner when Obama deploys this $36 million. Can anybody claim this? I sure can't. $36 mil can change a lot of minds. Hillary, meanwhile, has $45 million. Both are bound to collect more cash, too. And I honestly have no idea what will happen after the two top Democratic candidates spend $100 million (or more!) between the two of them to pick up the nomination. Anybody who claims they do is just tilting at windmills.

-Jay Cost