National surveys of the presidential races in each party have remained relatively consistent since early in the year. As soon as Giuliani announced his candidacy, he jumped out to a big lead in the Republican primary, an advantage he still enjoys, although recent signs indicate a possible tightening of the contest. John McCain continues to run second, with Mitt Romney mired in a distant third place. Surveys that include Newt Gingrich or Fred Thompson usually have either or both lagging behind McCain but ahead of Romney.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Rodham Clinton enjoys a commanding lead over Barack Obama, with John Edwards in third place. While Hillary’s lead shrank earlier in the year, she now appears to have reestablished a formidable margin. When Al Gore is added to the field, he generally runs about even with Edwards but behind both Clinton and Obama.
But the state-by-state surveys show a very different picture. Romney, buried in the national polls, not only shows the expected lead in his neighboring state of New Hampshire, but also leads the pack in Iowa, while John McCain shows unusual strength in South Carolina. On the Democratic side, Edwards runs ahead in Iowa and Hillary often polls a distant third.
So which set of polls is predictive — the national surveys or the polling in the early-primary states?
Traditionally, national polls have not been worth the cost of printing them. They typically show the better-known national candidates in the lead and fail to capture the local appeal of a lesser-known candidate who is quietly winning converts in the early-primary and caucus states. In the past, as the candidates campaigned extensively in the early states, voters there came to know them very well and their reactions often presaged those of the rest of the country once America began to focus on the race. In prior years, the results in Iowa and New Hampshire imposed themselves on the nation, sometimes sweeping aside the candidates who had been designated front-runners in the national surveys.
But this year may be different. Eventually, the early states will be decisive, as always. The candidates who do well in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will win the nominations. If Florida advances its date to late January, it could play a similar role in 2008. But will the early states fall in line and eventually conform to the national polls, or will they stay loyal to the trends they now indicate? Will today’s front-runner in Iowa or New Hampshire win there and go on to win the nomination, or will he or she fall back as the national trends assert themselves in these early states?