Missing the Boat on the New Hampshire Vote Pollsters are taking it on the chin for failing to anticipate Sen. Hillary Clinton's victory in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. But reporters were barking up the wrong tree, too. How did the prognosticators miscalculate?
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Missing the Boat on the New Hampshire Vote

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Missing the Boat on the New Hampshire Vote

Missing the Boat on the New Hampshire Vote

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And we'll soon find out at pollsters and pundits and forecasts future primaries any better than they did the last one, you remember New Hampshire?

Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Here's the tally for the media in New Hampshire, zero delegates and one, big, fat black eye. It was just a few days ago when you heard a lot of talk like these from people like ABC's Charlie Gibson.

Mr. CHARLIE GIBSON (News Anchor, ABC): Well, there is anxiety in the Clinton camp. Hillary…

FOLKENFLIK: Or CBS's, Chip Reid.

Mr. CHIP REID (Capitol Hill Correspondent, CBS): The big news here in the polls, they're showing Barack Obama surging into the lead and leaving Hillary Clinton in his wake.

FOLKENFLIK: And then yesterday, you're hearing a whole mass of this, in this instance, from the Fox News channel.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning to you Senator Clinton and congratulations.

FOLKENFLIK: So what happened?

Ms. JACKIE CALMES (Political Reporter; National Correspondent, The Wall Street Journal): I would argue and I remain confident that the polls were right at the time they were taken.

FOLKENFLIK: That's the political reporter Jackie Calmes. Those polls would be the same ones that showed Barack Obama ahead by anywhere from five to 13 points and propelled Calmes' front-page story in The Wall Street Journal that was headlined: Clinton Braces for Second Loss. Ouch.

But lest we judge her too quickly, Calmes was far from alone this week and did a lot of reporting beyond the polls. Obama was about to get a big union endorsement. Clinton was running out of money and some Clinton advisers told Calmes they might urge the senator to withdraw if she lost big on Tuesday.

Ms. CALMES: So you put all these together and then confirmation from the Clinton people that they expected to lose, you know, how do you not report that?

FOLKENFLIK: Especially when all your competitors are rushing to report the results before they happen. Well, most all. Among those pleading for restraint is John Walcott. He's the Washington Bureau Chief of the McClatchy chain of 31 newspapers, which include The Miami Herald and The Sacramento Bee.

Mr. JOHN WALCOTT (Washington Bureau Chief, McClatchy Co.): We concentrate too much on the horse race. We are too quick to tell people how things are going to turn out before they've had the chance to weigh in.

FOLKENFLIK: Walcott says readers typically ignore disclaimers that polls are just a snapshot in time quite literally, which can change in a matter of days or even hours.

Mr. WALCOTT: People do read poll stories as predictive when, in fact, they're not. And I think those of us in the media tend to play to that.

FOLKENFLIK: Old hands say polls are best at illuminating how voters feel about candidates and issues, but not always how they'll actually vote. Take it from Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. His essay on Hillary Clinton appears in the Newsweek edition that's on the stands right now. And it sure didn't talk much about a Clinton inaugural address.

Mr. JONATHAN ALTER (Senior Editor and Columnist, Newsweek): I had sensed that she was increasingly, and the entire Clinton idea, was increasingly receding into the rearview mirror and that we were in the midst of generational change.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet things are now looking up for Clinton. Even so, Alter doesn't retract his column's premise. In large part he says because he doesn't want to lurch too far to the other direction and write off Obama prematurely either.

NPR's polling czar is Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Director, Pew Research Center): This is a surprise and what pollsters have to do is figure out why.

FOLKENFLIK: A Stanford professor suggested Obama did poorly because the alphabetical listing of candidates put him so far down the ballot after Clinton. Kohut is testing a different theory. He recalls past elections when black candidates running against the white opponents earned weaker support than the polls would have suggested.

Mr. KOHUT: We're doing some experiments on our surveys this week to look at the race issue.

FOLKENFLIK: Wouldn't you know it? The one way the polling profession promises to remedy its failure is to ask a lot more voters a lot more questions.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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