Despite Sen. Kennedy's 2-to-1 lead over President Carter as reported in the latest syndicated polls, the president remains the likely Democratic nominee for 1980.
This apparent contradiction between the survey findings and our expectation does not arise from a failure of the polls either to ask the right questions or to report the correct answers. It arises, rather, from the frequent failure of political observers to differentiate between members of the general public who are surveyed by the national polls and members of decision-making publics who determine specific political issues.
In the case of the Democratic nominee for 1980, it is essential to remember that it is not those of the general public who participate in the primary process but members of a select decision-making public. This decision-making public is a far smaller and a far different group. Because of this, the views of the general public are a poor guide to the preferred primary candidate of the decision-makers.
Four factors contribute to a divergence between the perceptions, opinions and behavior of the two groups. First, the syndicated polls of the general public report the views of all adults age 18 and over. While all adults may be "potential voters," only half will vote in a general election.
Second, far fewer than half of the potential Democratic voters participate in the Democratic primaries. Primary participation varies enormously by region, being lowest in the South and highest in the Far West. eIn all cases, better-educated upper-status persons are more apt to vote. In the South particularly, they form the constituency of President Carter, not Sen. Kennedy.
Third, 17 of the states -- one-third of the total -- designate their presidential preferences not through primary elections, but through caucus conventions. In these states, only a handful of persons take part in the nominating process. These persons are not only the most committed and active political participants, but are also more sensitive to the desirability of party cohesion. They have a predisposition to support an incumbent president, thus favoring Carter over Kennedy.
Finally, all primaries and caucuses do not weigh equally in affecting the choice of the national nominee. The decision-makers in the early contests -- Florida, Iowa and New Hampshire -- carry disproportionate influence. Candidate showings in these battles dictate subsequent media coverage and financial support. These are the essential, if not sufficient, elements of electoral victory. It was Carter's success in the Iowa caucuses that created his media credibility and financial underpinning in 1976.
By crediting Kennedy with a 2-to-1 margin, the polls have labeled him as th the overwhelming popular favorite. Now Kennedy must face the burden of living up to this popular expectation. A failure to do so -- even in terms of a marginal loss -- could effectively destroy his candidacy.
Thus, despite the overwhelming lead that the polls credit to Kennedy, Carter remains the more likely choice for Democratic nominee. While the syndicated polls accurately assess Kennedy's popularity among the entire adult population, they do not relate to the relevant question of his strength among those who decide the primary contests.