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?
There are some indications that the national trends may be more decisive than they have been in the past. With public interest in the presidential campaign at dizzying levels, not just in the early-primary or caucus states where the candidates are concentrating their campaigns but throughout the nation, the opinions voters express in national polls are not nearly as ill-formed or tentative as in past elections.
With cable news channels covering the early running with breathless intensity, voters outside the early states are forming definite opinions, often quite contrary to those which predominate in the early state polls. Since at least 10 states have moved their primaries up to Feb. 5 and most are likely to follow, it would stand to reason that this year voters are concentrating on the choices earlier than they have in previous years, so the national polls may mean more than they have in the past.
The Romney leads, for example, may just be due to heavy early media spending in the hopes of getting something started in Iowa and New Hampshire. McCain’s strength in South Carolina might be due to residual memories of his valiant campaign there in 2000. When the big guns — Hillary, Obama and Giuliani — concentrate on the early states, they may assume the same lead there that they have throughout the country.
Or... the local leads current polls predict could be decisive. The front-runners in the early polls in the early states could consolidate their hold and win, upsetting and dramatically changing the national picture.
My bet is that the national will trump the local. Just as Howard Dean's edge in Iowa and New Hampshire vanished when the national media closed in and broadcast a steady diet of negative attacks (orchestrated by the leadership of the Democratic Party), so the national front-runners will likely impose their leads on the early states. But this year is clearly sui generis, and anything can happen.