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Thursday, October 28, 2004

How to Tell Who's Ahead in a Political Campaign

The opinion polls have become notoriously unreliable in the past few years, to the point that some analysts argue that the media outlets commissioning the polls actually want them to be skewed, to make for more interesting stories and to push for their favored candidates. It has become a truism to say that one cannot trust the polls, especially those claiming to tell which way voters are leaning during election campaigns.

Actually, for us laypersons the polls are often unnecessary anyway. I have found that the surest way to infer a candidate's real standing is to watch what he or she does on the campaign trail and in paid advertising. A candidate's polls are as accurate as they can be made to be, because the consequences of getting the numbers wrong are potentially so disastrous. Hence, risky, negative gambits almost always indicate that a candidate knows he or she is behind and falling farther back.

Here in Indiana, for example, Gov. Joe Kernan suddenly went very negative a couple of weeks ago, with a series of extremely harsh advertisements claiming that his challenger, Mitch Daniels, had made a fortune costing average people their jobs during his tenure as a board member of an Indiana corporation. The ads seemed much more angry, intemperate, and irrelevant than one thought could possibly be necessary, especially considering that the two candidates were said to be running neck-and-neck at the time.

Now the polls say that Kernan is about a half-dozen points behind Daniels. One could surmise that the negative ads pushed him down in the polls, but it seems quite possible that what has really happened is that the press's polls are starting to catch up with Kernan's and Daniels's more accurate internally generated numbers. In that case, Kernan's negative ads would be understandable as a desperation move by a candidate falling behind in the polls late in his campaign.

And the same theory would explain the increasing harshness of Sen. John Kerry's attacks on President Bush since the third debate.

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