WASHINGTON (AP) — Going into the Iowa caucuses in 2012, everyone was fixated on the opinion polls except, it seems, Iowa voters. Republicans delivered victory to a laggard in the surveys — and a humbling lesson on the hazards of reading too much into polling.
Memories are short. Come Monday in Iowa, or Feb. 9 in New Hampshire or somewhere, sometime, you can bet the poll-riveted political class will get another spanking.
For months, horse race polls have been the prime driver of who is perceived to be rising, falling and toast in the 2016 presidential campaign. That begins to change when Iowa caucus-goers open voting in the 2016 presidential campaign. But the polling blizzard will go on, as will the hand-in-hand game of expectations and perceptions, until votes have been cast in enough states to secure the party nominations. And from then until Election Day in November.
How addictive are polls? Donald Trump eats them for breakfast, lunch, dinner and bedtime snack. "YUGE" chunks of his rallies are about polls.
Bernie Sanders loves them, too, now that they look better for him. All candidates love polls pointing upward. When the needle just won't budge, though, they invoke various rationalizations to explain how they get up and slog through another day.
What some candidates say about polling and the reality behind their words:
THE SPIN: "I don't care what the polls say." — Jeb Bush.
THE METER: Yes you do.
His own campaign conducted polling until that became too expensive.
Even if you don't believe them — perhaps with good reason — polls matter. They affect how much money a candidate raises, endorsements from party luminaries and the public attention paid to the candidacy. And in this campaign, polls determine who makes the cut for the main Republican debates, who stands where on that stage and generally who gets the most questions.
THE SPIN: "The polls are not scientific." — Rand Paul.
THE METER: The low-polling Kentucky senator is right that many aren't. Even ones that are scientific can miss the mark. And ones that are scientific and right still are only a snapshot of the moment.
But if a succession of scientifically conducted polls finds you to be an afterthought, there's a good chance you are an afterthought, let's say, 19 times out of 20.
THE SPIN: "Once Iowans get into that decision-making pocket, none of the pollsters back East can tell you how it's going to turn out." — Martin O'Malley.
THE METER: Despite his swipe at the "back East" polling establishment, home-grown Iowa polls also find the former Maryland governor trailing Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders by a Midwestern country mile.
It's true, though, that Iowans can deliver a shocker; witness Rick Santorum's 2012 victory. He was fifth or worse in polls several weeks before the GOP caucuses, rising to a distant third in final polls.
And in New Hampshire in 2008, polls across the board showed a clear lead for Barack Obama until the end, when he lost to Hillary Clinton.
THE SPIN: "Lovefest." — Trump on an overflow Mississippi crowd. "Every venue is standing room only." — Ben Carson on his home-stretch Iowa audiences. "We're seeing larger and larger crowds." — O'Malley.
THE METER: There's nothing like a sea of friendly faces to provide an antidote to bad polls or to sweeten good ones. Trump and Sanders have spirited throngs and strong polling going for them. But, like everyone else, they don't yet have an actual vote. The question for them is whether all that enthusiasm will get their supporters to come out Monday night for caucuses that can take hours. That's everyone's challenge.
Obama effectively converted the passion of his 2008 Iowa rallies into a caucus victory. And in 2012, Santorum drew from motivated religious conservatives to zoom out of the polling doldrums and squeak to the top.
As for others competing Monday, claims about swelling crowds are decidedly relative. Carson, O'Malley and others may be seeing more people as potential voters get engaged in the final days, but these campaigns aren't booking big halls.
THE SPIN: "In the eighth poll this month, John Kasich is firmly in second place among likely New Hampshire voters." — Kasich campaign statement.
THE METER: Firmly?
The campaign's claim is a case study in ignoring the margin of error inherent in polling, and of cherry-picking polls. Both traits are practically universal in politics.
In five of the eight polls, Kasich was statistically tied in second place with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Bush or several of them at once. A lead within the margin of error is not relevant. And in three of the polls, Kasich had no margin over rivals at all — he and Cruz both polled at 15 percent in one, he and Rubio at 14 percent in another, he and Bush at 12 percent in a third.
The campaign subsequently added a ninth poll to buttress its case. In that one, Kasich was actually clumped with three other rivals under Trump and not in a statistically significant second place.
Altogether, many of the nine polls cited by Kasich's campaign have poor track records or used techniques that fail to reach large portions of the population. He may finish second in the primary anyway, but the polls don't establish that that's where he is now.
Associated Press writers Ann Sanner in Columbus, Ohio, and Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.