Can We Clarify When Polls Matter?

Ron Paul can't get any attention despite fundraising and organizing successes, while Herman Cain is getting too much attention despite fundraising and organizing failures.

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Ron Paul can't get any attention despite fundraising and organizing successes, while Herman Cain is getting too much attention despite fundraising and organizing failures. It's just so hard to tell when polls officially matter. ThinkProgress's Matt Yglesias noted Cain's position at the top of polls and shrugged that he "isn't going to be the GOP nominee." But in June Yglesias complained, "For all that smart pundits have written him off, and conservatives elites don't seem to like him, the continuing reality is that Mitt Romney has the best poll numbers out there." The articles asking "Can Cain do it?" are many, but the number of people who think he will are few. While The New York Times' Nate Silver says he's shocked so many are so dismissive of Cain's chances of victory even though he leads some polls, Silver himself gives the candidate long odds. Matt Glassman, who works for Congressional Research Service and writes about politics, was a little annoyed by Silver's post: "He concedes that Cain's chances might be 'slim' and then suggests that 'slim' might mean slightly less than two percent," Glassman writes. "[I]f it's 'arrogant to say that the man leading in the polls two months before Iowa has no chance,' then it's probably pretty arrogant to make him a 50 to 1 longshot."

In August, Jon Stewart was outraged that the media is ignoring Paul -- "Fox News should love this guy!" -- even after he came in second place at the Ames, Iowa straw poll, just behind Michele Bachmann. Surveying the Paul-free coverage, Stewart says, "You're not forgetting anyone say an ideologically consistent 12-term congressman who came in less than 200 votes of winning the straw poll? Isn't anyone going to give that gentleman a little love?" Probably not. Unlike Paul, Cain is getting lots of press. But it's press Paul might not want -- like the speculation that Cain is only running to sell books. Paul stayed in the 2008 Republican primary race after it was mathematically impossible for him to win, then quickly published a book, The Revolution: A Manifesto, that became a New York Times bestseller. And the coverage of Cain focuses on his unseriousness or slim chances. The Daily Beast's Michelle Goldberg would bet big money on his loss, while the National Review's Rich Lowry gives him maybe a 10 percent chance of winning the Iowa caucuses. Bill Scher and Matt Lewis debate whether Cain is too "uninformed" to win. Cain's low odds get a lengthy treatment from Jonathan Bernstein in response to Silver. Commentary's Peter Wehner has devoted many words to the inadequacy of Cain -- that the presidency isn't "an entry-level position," that he's "a man who doesn't seem to have thought through in any depth many of the issues he speaks out on," that his debate performances offered "yet another awkward walk-back" and an indication that he "will become less appealing the more GOP voters examine his policies." Wehner's debate recaps don't mention Paul's performance. He did write "A Response to Ron Paul Supporters" on September 1 and "Even Obama is Preferable to Ron Paul" a week later. No real Paul coverage since.

The message that Cain is interesting but doomed is sinking in. The Washington Post's Dan Balz hosted a focus group of Ohio voters who seemed really high on Cain. "Cain repeatedly rose to the top of the conversation about the Republican candidates," Balz reports. "When Hart asked the group who intrigued them most, no one came close to Cain in the number of mentions." If the candidates were fifth grade students, what would they be like? Cain was  "hard worker," the "all-American kid," and "the kid everyone respects." By contrast, three-quarters of them said Rick Perry would be a "bully," and five of the 12 said Mitt Romney was the "rich and privileged kid." But at the end of the exercise, the Ohioans were asked, "Is anybody willing to raise your hand and say 'I would be comfortable if he became the next president of the United States?'" Not a single one did. Meanwhile, if the focus group was asked about Paul, Balz didn't find the results interesting enough to mention in his story.
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