Rasmussen on the NH Mistake, and the Power of Story

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In this post I relay Rasmussen’s preliminary report on why they got New Hampshire wrong.  Their explanation is not simple or single-faceted.  I also offer some reflections on the power of simple narratives.

I don’t like “stories” when it comes to campaigns.  I don’t like, for example, to be told that “the women of New Hampshire” were “moved” by Clinton’s “teary-eyed moment.”  This is too quick, too easy, too lazy, and too insulting.  It makes too many people’s jobs — pundits, reporters, campaign staffs — less taxing for me to believe it is really getting at the truth.  The truth might be more mundane, less psychological, messier . . . and above all, the truth might not fit into anyone’s “story” about this or that “campaign”.

But never mind.  The media, which needs a story, seems to have decided that Clinton won New Hampshire because of her “teary-eyed moment.”  This is the story that the major media seem to be settling on, and this is the conclusion Clinton herself seems to have drawn.  The narrative, therefore, about this campaign will likely be one about “Clinton showing she is human,” or “I listened to you and in the process I found my own voice” or “That crying really seemed genuine. I’ll bet she spent hours thinking about it beforehand.”

That this is not the whole story seems not to matter.  That, in fact, there are much more mundane reasons for the discrepency between polling techniques and voter turn-out — reasons that don’t create “a story” or define a “candidacy” or advance a “narrative”, in any kind of way that would be of easy assistance to reporters and pundits working on deadlines, or to candidates and their staffs in want of a “theme” — seems not to be getting much notice in the media.

But I want to point out that Rasmussen Reports has issued a prelimary report on why they got New Hampshire wrong.  Their initial conculsions are messy, multi-faceted, and advance no narrative.  These conclusions will not be of much use to those in need of a “storyline”.

Rasmussen’s report lists several possible factors, and begins with the observation that the media narrative about Clinton’s victory might not be entirely wrong.  “First, there may truly have been very late changes in the race.”  

Hillary’s tearing-up moment may have played a role (another powerful moment came in the debate on Saturday night where the only woman in the race reminded everyone that she embodies change). There is some evidence to support this theory, even if we only recognize it in hindsight.

Note that this phrasing does not seem at all points to be in agreement with the single-minded simplicity of the “story” we are being handed by those who, as a matter of professionsal survival and ease, must have a narrative to sell about he election process, the candidates, and the millions of people who, for their own reasons, vote for one candidate or another.

The New York Times, in promoting the narrative, found “several New Hampshire women” who noted Clinton’s “moment”:

Several New Hampshire women, some of them undecided until Tuesday, said that a galvanizing moment for them had been Mrs. Clinton’s unusual display of emotion on Monday as she described the pressures of the race and her goals for the nation – a moment Mrs. Clinton herself acknowledged as a breakthrough.

How long it took to find these “several New Hampshire women,” the Times does not say.

Maureen Dowd asked “Can Hillary Cry Her Way to the White House?” — adding a sarcastic tone to the accepted narrative.

Clinton herself fitted the “moment” into her “story”:

“I had this incredible moment of connection with the voters of New Hampshire and they saw it and they heard it. And they gave me this incredible victory last night,” she said during an interview with CBS.

In other words, the dispute is not over whether Clinton “had this incredible moment of connection with the voters of New Hampshire” but over the evaluation of the “meaning” of this “moment”.  The debate has hardened into an argument over whether “women” are being affected by Clinton’s “moment”.

That all of this might be missing the point, seems not to matter.  

Rassmusen: “First, there may truly have been very late changes in the race.”  There may be some truth to “this theory”, and there may not.  Rasmussen also notes:

Another possibility is that the polls simply understated Clinton’s support. At one level, Clinton’s campaign organization may have been great at getting out the vote. One analyst noted that “The Clinton turnout operation in Manchester their strongest area, was very good, and turnout soared 33% over 2000. In Rochester-Dover-Somersworth, another strong Clinton area, turnout was up 94% from 2000.” That could account for a several percentage points, but not the ten point gap between our final poll and the actual results.

And further:

The problem may also have resulted from the greatest challenge in polling–determining who will actually show up and vote. This is especially difficult in a Primary Election. It is possible, perhaps likely, that the polling models used by Rasmussen Reports and others did not account for the very high turnout experienced in New Hampshire. Rasmussen Reports normally screens out people with less voting history and less interest in the race. This might have caused us to screen out some women who might not ordinarily vote in a Primary but who came out to vote due to the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy. The final Rasmussen Reports poll anticipated that 54% of the Democratic voters would be women while exit polls showed that number to be 57%.

To this extent, the polls were merely mistaken.

All polling organizations “screen out” voters that they think are not motivated to vote in the primary.  These folks never appear in the numbers, in the first place.  That Rasmussen is admiting that its own “likely voter model” may well have underestimated Clinton support does not fit in well with the “this incredible moment of connection” story about the events in New Hampshire.


There is a lesson here in the value of not accepting any story — in the value of prefering the messy facts of the observable.  From McCain’s “centrist appeal” and “refreshing candor” to Huckabee’s “appeal to the religious grassroots” for “whites” to “African Americans” who “don’t believe a black man can win” and Obama’s “hope” and “false hope” to white men “turned off” by Clinton’s “lack of emotion” and Edwards’s “anger” . . . these are all “stories”.  We believe them at our peril.

The extent to which we let the major media, and the candidates whom they cover, tell America what America thinks, is the extent to which we grant them power over us.  Stories have a way of becoming “what happened” and “what was always going to happen”.  They have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, and, ultimately, the history we tell each other about why we chose as we did.

That all of this starts out as illusion, and that we all have a choice in accepting it, is not part of the story.  But I really wish we could all keep it in mind.


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  1. before they’ve even had a chance to vote?  Maybe they “punk’d” the pollsters?  Or maybe people really didn’t decide until the last moment.  

    It’s just my own little quirk but I believe that the polls and the media have some influence on the outcome & that bothers me–if people see that their candidate is far down in the polls, they may feel they don’t want to waste their vote; if their candidate is very high in the polls, they may decide to not bother to go vote, assuming that their candidate will win anyway.  

  2. Also at the Big Orange.

  3. about a hundred “recommends” for this. I HATE the CW narrative that is developed and then swallowed whole by the media. I think it comes from a combination of laziness and an attempt by people with mediocre intelligence to sound smart (Tweety and Wolfie anyone?)

    But I have a question I’m going to try posting wherever it fits to see if anyone has ideas. I just heard on msnbc ealier that the exit polls in NH were off by the same margin as the pre-primary polls were – but only in the Dem race.

    That raises lots of questions for me that folks like Rasmussen seem to not be answering. I can see late changes and bad choices in guessing who will actually show up. But how do those mistakes get echoed in exit polls?

    • Faber on January 10, 2008 at 05:44

    But they weren’t teary-eyed; they were in a mood to sharpen up some edge weapons.  Those I talked to (including Mrs. Faber, who came up through the ranks to a highly placed position) said it brought up, for them personally, every damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t double bind they’d ever run up against, every pane of glass in that ceiling…

    Now, many if not most of these women have differences with Hillary Clinton on the issues; quite a few prefer other Democratic candidates, especially John Edwards.  But, let me tell you, the temptation to engage in a little payback was there — in spades, and mortally hard to resist.  

    Truth to tell, if I lived in New Hampshire, I’m not sure I could have resisted the temptation to kick Tweety in the teeth, or tell the “Iron my shirt!” bunch to iron their own motherf***ing shirt.  

    You see, I remember a very young Mrs. Faber who’d gone into a job interview, armed with a cum laude degree in political science, and been asked “Can you type, honey?”  I remember her, too angry to weep, too sad to rage.

    You only have to see one atrocity.

  4. Jimmy Swaggart has announced he has decided to enter the Democratic primaries.  Swaggart says he is better at crying on cue than “that woman.” Swaggart can even shed real tears like Nero was said to do when Nero fiddled around during fires.

    “I always wanted to be emperor,” said Swaggart.  

    Best,  Terry

    • pico on January 10, 2008 at 17:28

    did you see Rimjob’s diary on this topic, “What happened“?  I think he did a good job of arguing that any number of multiple factors were likely to have combined in the final result.

    Another factor I haven’t seen much written on, but which may have played a role, is simply that the Obama post-Iowa surge wasn’t as real as people thought: Clinton lead NH until Iowa, and it’s not unlikely that some people who got caught up in the popularity surge only a few days before voting thought differently about it once in the booths.  If you’re pulling for one candidate for a year and suddenly get excited about another candidate that week, it’s not unthinkable that the physical act of voting might change your mind.

    By no means do I offer that as an “explanation”: I’m behind your statement that any “story” is too simple and therefore suspect.  In the end, X + Y + Z + … + N = Clinton’s NH victory.

    • MO Blue on January 10, 2008 at 19:34

    could predict NH.

    With expectations so high and some 50 percent of New Hampshire voters saying they were undecided just a day before going to the polls, if Obama ties Clinton, wins by 3 percent or is beat by Clinton, Barresi said the groundswell of support he gained off the Iowa victory could rapidly dissipate. {www.mtvu.com/news/articles/1579189/20080107/index.jhtml}

    Seems to me the whole primary was very much up for grabs until people got to the polls.

  5. . . . in their predictions of what “likely voters” would do.   What they failed to anticipate was that hordes of not-so-“likely” voters would turn out on election day, repelled by the disgustingly sexist MSM treatment of Mrs. Clinton’s not-really-all-that-teary-eyed “moment,” and ready to give the media a black eye on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf.  If I lived in New Hampshire, I’d have been tempted to do the same, even though I’m not a woman myself, and am planning in fact to vote for another candidate.  But all that fat-white-male piggery in the MSM, all that “the Witch is dead” meme between Iowa and New Hampshire, was really too much to be borne.

    Add to that the fact that most people really, really don’t like being told who they’re going to vote for–not by the MSM or anyone else–and you have the recipe for an “upset” (of the MSM’s applecart, at least) not only in New Hampshire, but perhaps in many other places as well.  

    • Nordic on January 11, 2008 at 07:05

    is that a recount is a GREAT idea.  Just to put all the speculation to rest.

    I totally support that.

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