Looking away from Dixie

Polls failed to take into account dynamics of Southern politics

Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2004

As a native Southerner, I know the stereotypes. One is that someone like me should always be a gentleman. Another is that I'm probably not all that cotton-picking bright. Certainly not smart enough to keep pace with a one-man walking brain trust out of Washington or, say, Utica, New York.

As for the first cliche, it's true. I am more or less gentlemanly in my ways.

As for the second one about limited cerebral resources south of the Mason-Dixon, it must be true, too. Exhibit one: Pollster John Zogby is a brilliant man with a very strong research organization. When canvassing polling data, I customarily consider his with grave and respectful credulity.

Except for polls in and about the South, Zogby and most other pollsters don't understand the dynamics of Southern politics.

Unfortunately, that means they don't fully understand national presidential politics.

On May 11, this column took issue with the fact that Zogby recently had declared with great fanfare that John Kerry would win the presidency. For conclusive evidence, he pointed to his own poll findings. One revealed the alarmingly low percentage of prospective voters that were backing President Bush's re-election. Another found that Kerry led Bush in public support on virtually every major policy issue.

In my written rebuttal to Zogby, I pointed out that one Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida had himself easily overcome initially low "re-elect numbers" to earn a second term in 2002. I also highlighted our own InsiderAdvantage survey from April of this year. It showed that Kerry did not lead Bush on, for example, support for their respective economic proposals. The difference between our poll and Zogby's was in the phrasing of the question. We couched it in terms of the respondents' own PERSONAL economic circumstances. Even on most other issues, our poll showed no significant preference for Kerry.

In conclusion, my column said, "I believe Zogby underestimates the power of incumbency, the number of undecided or yet-to-become focused voters, and the constantly shifting nature of this titanic battle. Perhaps his opinion will (as it did in the Iowa caucuses) create a self-fulfilling prophecy. But for now, it's off base."

Equally off-base was Zogby's statement to the media, including the online version of his hometown (Utica) newspaper, the Observer-Dispatch. "I think we are looking at a Kerry victory."

According to WorldNetDaily, Zogby also posted an electoral vote breakdown on his Web site that showed Kerry soundly defeating Bush.

Zogby was wrong in May and he was wrong on Election Day. But his error wasn't in data collection. He is truly expert at that.

Instead, he badly misfired because like so many other experts he has never worn the pads of electoral combat in those perplexing no-blue zones known as The Heartland and The Deep South.

In my April 14 column, I noted that, "In the South, there is a perception that (Kerry) is a somewhat effete Northerner with a genuine resistance to dealing with anything Southern. ... With policies like he's pushing, it's no wonder the Demo-crats haven't won the White House with a non-Southern nominee since John Kennedy." As we now know, Kerry carried not one Southern state. That made his election a virtual impossibility.

But his losses weren't limited to the South. He also saw Ohio slip through his fingers, despite the media-aided perception that every available job there had been long since airmailed to India, with postage personally paid by George W. Bush.

In June, I argued that the intangible issue of the two candidates' "likability" might turn the election in one or the other direction. Sure enough, even as Kerry nearly destroyed Bush's re-election chances by thrashing him in the first televised debate, the Democrat never communicated the kind of personal warmth he needed to swing the swing states his way. And it disallowed him any traction in the South, where likability is a must in a candidate. The South likes Bush.

As Election Day loomed in late October, I penned a column for the Florida Times-Union on the day of "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party," the Georgia-Florida college football game. It said, "The real key for both camps in the next few days will be harnessing these extraordinarily strong opinions, and converting them into a 'get out the vote' success." I concluded that early voting in states such as Florida "will make vehicles such as exit polls ... absolutely useless on election night."

Which brings me back to Zogby. Any pollster or pundit can be wrong on a given day. There are no final victories in the unforgiving industry of political polling. But Zogby and many of the experts put their faith in raw numbers and flawed exit polling logic. In the end, the race turned on who America liked the most and which party got its voter base to the polls. Any post-election analysis immediately following our during the voting had to be specious, given that it would necessarily be based on flawed exit polls.

Not being in Washington or New York can have its disadvantages for journalists, pollsters and pundits. On the other hand, it might do some of the celebrated national experts good to spend next November in the stands of the Georgia-Florida game. The breeze in the upper decks of Alltel Stadium might just tell them and the whole world which way the winds are about to blow.

Matt Towery writes for Morris News Service.



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