November 20, 2007

Should Hillary Start To Sweat?

If the basis for her anxiety comes from the latest WaPo/ABC poll, not really. The poll shows Barack Obama ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa with six weeks (or less) to go before the caucuses open the primary season. However, the polling history and a small sample both fail to instill confidence in its conclusions:

The top three Democratic presidential contenders remain locked in a close battle in Iowa, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) seeing her advantages diminish on key issues, including the questions of experience and which candidate is best prepared to handle the war in Iraq, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News Poll.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) draws support from 30 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, compared with 26 percent for Clinton and 22 percent for former senator John Edwards (N.C.). New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson received 11 percent. The results are only marginally different from a Post-ABC poll in late July, but in a state likely to set the tone for the rest of the nominating process, there are significant signs of progress for Obama -- and harbingers of concern for Clinton.

The factors that have made Clinton the clear national front-runner -- including her overwhelming leads on the issues of the Iraq war and health care, a widespread sense that she is the Democrats' most electable candidate, and her strong support among women -- do not appear to be translating on the ground in Iowa, where campaigning is already fierce and television ads have been running for months.

Even if Iowa remained in play, it doesn't necessarily mean much this year. Iowa has not reliably picked nominees over the years in the best of circumstances, and in the compressed primary schedule this cycle, it will mean even less. Within days, a large number of delegates will get selected from big states, and Obama hasn't come close to Hillary in places like New York and California.

This, incidentally, is true of the Republican primaries, too. With the large states front-loading the primary schedules, Iowa and New Hampshire will have much less influence than Florida, California, and New York. The polling suggests that both Hillary and Rudy Giuliani can afford a slow start in the Iowa caucuses, although Rudy probably needs to show well in Iowa and New Hampshire.

This particular poll does narrow down the sample to likely caucus goers, but it only surveys a sample of 500. That's acceptable but on the small side. The Des Moines Register actually uses a smaller sample, but they have a track record of better accuracy -- and their poll shows Obama in third place as of the beginning of October. Given that the ABC poll shows no movement for Hillary in Iowa since the July poll and a small gain for Obama at the expense of John Edwards, I'd interpret that as Hillary keeping pace.

Either she leads the polling, or she's within the margin of error, and Iowa is perhaps her one really soft spot in the state races. I don't think Hillary will be breaking into a cold sweat over this poll, and I doubt it reflects any danger at all that she'll lose the nomination.


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