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Thursday, October 28, 2004

How to Tell Who's Ahead, II

Today's New York Times story "A Clouding of the Crystal Ball Draws the Candidates Back," by R. W. Apple Jr., provides more evidence for my theory that the poll numbers the press reports to us are a far less accurate guide to the candidates' true standing with the voters than are the candidates' actions themselves.

Michigan was safely in the Kerry column, and still is so, according to all the polls except one that recently appeared in the Detroit News, but suddenly both Kerry and Bush are campaigning furiously there."Very late in the game," Apple writes, "Michigan finds itself back in play."

Apple believes that the Detroit News poll was what caught both candidates' attention:

So what happened? Bill Ballenger, who edits Inside Michigan Politics, a popular newsletter, traces the change to a tracking poll by Steve Mitchell of East Lansing for The Detroit News, which showed Mr. Bush ahead by five percentage points as of last weekend, when other polls showed Mr. Kerry holding a solid lead.

"I think Mitchell changed their minds," Mr. Ballenger said. "He worried the Kerry people and he encouraged the Bush people. If Steve hadn't come out with those numbers, the candidates wouldn't have invested any more time in Michigan."

It strikes me as highly unlikely, however, that one outlier poll could have that much influence over candidates' actions in a very close, high-stakes race. Much of the article, in fact, deals with the presumed unreliability of the polls conducted by the press. In addition, Apple's own article quotes a source as claiming that the candidates' internal polls must have been the real factor in their change in plans:
David Rohde, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, said he had "seen nothing and heard nothing" to explain why Michigan should suddenly "lurch.'' But the candidates' own internal polls, he added, "must show the race tightening in the last days, or they wouldn't be coming here."

None of this, of course, is intended to say that Bush will now win Michigan, only that the race in the state is much closer than previously thought, and that the New York Times saw Kerry's and Bush's new interest in campaigning in Michigan as a clue to the real state of the race, despite what the polls said.

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