It's too early for too much reliance on public opinion polls for presidential primary races in potentially critical states.
Too many of the nation's major pollsters seem inclined to push respondents to choose candidates of their liking, even though most people have better things to do than worry about a primary election eight months before it happens.
Yet with early televised debates and already endless campaign appearances by candidates, it's important to straighten out some misperceptions about one of the first major presidential primaries next year, South Carolina.
Who is leading the field? It's tempting to say "all of the above." More accurately, several candidates are at the top of the polls, including some who haven't announced they're running. It's a statistical dead heat among the leaders.
Our latest InsiderAdvantage survey, conducted for the Southern Political Report, asked likely Republican voters in South Carolina who they would vote for if that state's presidential primary were held today. Here are the results:
Rudy Giuliani: 18 percent
John McCain: 17 percent
Newt Gingrich: 17 percent
Fred Thompson: 13 percent
Mitt Romney: 8 percent
Mike Huckabee: 6 percent
Duncan Hunter: 3 percent
Sam Brownback: 3 percent
Jim Gilmore: 1 percent
Ron Paul: 1 percent
Undecided/Don't Know: 13 percent
The telephone poll surveyed 500 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. It was conducted May 21-22. Full details can be found at www.southernpoliticalreport.com.
First, it's important to point out that several other national polls of South Carolina show John McCain with a clear lead. Others, such as Zogby International, show the race between Giuliani and McCain to be a statistical tie, with McCain barely in front. Several others show Gingrich in third place. At least one has Thompson third.
The truth is that none of the candidates can claim the hearts -- much less the votes -- of South Carolina Republicans at this point. According to 40-year veteran South Carolina political reporter Lee Bandy, the hype surrounding the South Carolina primary is more outside of the state than within its borders.
"People here really aren't concentrating on the race yet," said Bandy, who writes for Columbia's The State newspaper, and also edits InsiderAdvantage's online political news site for South Carolina. "It's still eight months away," he reminds us.