Polls Were Right About McCain but Missed the Call on Clinton's Primary Win

In the final hours leading up to the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, presidential candidates appeal to N.H. voters for their support. At the end of the night, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) defeated his Republican rivals, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) beat Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in a close Democratic race.
By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

While pre-election polls in New Hampshire got Sen. John McCain's margin of victory about right on the Republican side, late polls fundamentally mischaracterized the status of the Democratic race.

Polls released in the two days before the election had Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) with a five- to 13-percentage-point lead over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Granite State, but Clinton defeated Obama, 39 percent to 36 percent.

Most polls accurately reflected the large bloc of likely Democratic voters yet to make up their minds or who said they were open to switching their support in the closing days. On the network exit poll, nearly 4 in 10 said they made their final decision within the last three days; 17 percent said they decided how to vote yesterday. Among those making up their minds on the day of the primary, 39 percent supported Clinton, 36 percent Obama. Clinton did even better among the third of the electorate who settled on their choice a month or more ago.

However, the late polls missed on how votes divided by gender. Pre-election polls from CNN-WMUR-University of New Hampshire and USA Today-Gallup showed Obama and Clinton about evenly splitting female voters and Obama winning men by a margin of 2 to 1. But Clinton won among women by 12 percentage points, exit polls showed, and she lost among men more narrowly than suggested, drawing 29 percent to Obama's 40 percent.

Yesterday's result is sure to fuel debate among poll-watchers about the accuracy of polls in contests with African American candidates. In several well-known past examples, pre-election polls of such campaigns underestimated support for the white candidates. But a strong showing by polls in 2006 in elections with black candidates seemed to put that notion finally to rest.

Other factors that are more probable than the role of race include "likely voter" modeling, with pollsters perhaps over-counting the boost of enthusiasm among Obama supporters following his victory in Iowa last Thursday.

Independents may have opted at the last minute to participate in the Republican primary, depriving Obama of voters.

The New Hampshire ballot rules may also have played a role. In previous contests, the state rotated candidate names from precinct to precinct, but this year the names were consistently in alphabetical order, with Clinton near the top and Obama lower down. Stanford professor Jon A. Krosnick, a survey specialist, has estimated the impact of appearing high on the New Hampshire ballot at three percentage points or greater.

Regardless, there were no immediate clear answers, and lots of data analysis ahead.

The network exit poll, conducted at 50 randomly selected precincts across the state, shows how Clinton did significantly better in New Hampshire than she did in Iowa.

In addition to winning women by a double-digit margin, she did significantly better among those seeking a candidate with the "right experience" than she did in Iowa, and she also did better among the majority of those emphasizing "change." Obama still did much better than Clinton among voters seeking a new direction, but with this group and among young voters, Clinton narrowed the Illinois senator's advantage.

On the Republican side, the Election Day poll showed how little the New Hampshire electorate resembled Iowa's, and McCain's success stemmed from those differences.

Independents made up about 4 in 10 GOP voters in New Hampshire, and the Arizona senator topped former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by double digits among this group, while the two split Republican voters about evenly. In Iowa, independents made up 13 percent of caucusgoers.

McCain scored big wins among moderates, those either dissatisfied or angry with the Bush administration, and voters whose top candidate qualities were "a candidate who says what he believes" and experience.

Four in 10 voters, including about a quarter of independents, said they made up their minds within the last week, and Romney's loss in Iowa appears to have had a negative impact. Among these deciding late, 42 percent chose McCain and 30 percent Romney.

The National Election Pool New Hampshire exit polls were conducted among 1,540 Republican primary voters and 2,010 Democratic primary voters. The margin of sampling error for both polls is plus or minus four percentage points.

Staff writer Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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