Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Game-Changing Register Poll

Like the most desperate of political junkies I am, New Year's Eve had to wait. The dog had been walked for the evening and a change of attire had taken place, but I wasn't going to leave the house until the Des Moines Register poll came out at 9:00.

The Register poll is influential here if only by virtue of its being the state's largest paper, and because of its impressive reputation on politics. But it was also last week voted by far the most reliable poll by professional pollsters.

Every other poll showed Clinton stabilizing, Obama down, and Edwards up ever since Christmas weekend. Huckabee had been dropping from his earlier heights as well, leading many to wonder if he'd peaked too early, and whether his gaffes and Romney's tough attacks were taking their toll.

A shocker it turned out to be. The Register showed Obama widening his lead since last month, now leading Clinton by seven and Edwards by eight, outside the margin of error. Huckabee stayed up on Romney by six.

The big story is on the Democratic side, where the poll predicted nearly 50 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers weren't Democrats. Forty percent of Independents and five percent of Republicans said they would caucus for Democrats on Thursday.

Rival campaigns were highly critical, saying such numbers would be unprecedented, and indeed they would be. Clinton's campaign was quick to point out that if only Democrats were polled, Clinton led Obama.

But don't be shocked if it actually happens. In months on the trail, I constantly run into Independents and Republicans who are disgusted with the GOP, and the vast majority of them favor Obama. How many will overcome the psychological barrier of changing their party registration to vote in the Democratic caucuses?

I won't pretend to have a read on that, but if ever there was an election for it to happen, this may be it.

All the candidates have been making their best cases for electability. I did a couple of pieces on Obama's appeal to Independents and Democrats back in October, and the most striking thing about my research for them was that the analysts and non-Democrats I spoke to were more optimistic about Obama's appeal than his campaign representatives. I don't think they've been pushing the issue enough, honestly.

But one thing is clear: if the poll bears out, Obama will have largely proven his general election viability in the first contest.

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