While the New Hampshire primary is known for surprise outcomes, it is a real long shot that someone will come from the back of the pack to defeat Bob Dole. The results of recent polls find Dole with one of the biggest leads in recent New Hampshire primary history. Further, his big margin in the Iowa polls only promises to strengthen his position in the New England state, given the usual impact of the outcome of those caucuses on New Hampshire voters. Dole’s most serious adversary may well be the expectations raised by his lofty position in the polls.
If polling history is any guide, a serious challenger to Dole in New Hampshire should have emerged by this point. Four years ago, the Democratic front runners in the polls were Clinton and Tsongas, respectively. By primary day, this ranking was re-arranged, as Gennifer Flowers and Tsongas’s local appeal combined to give the former Massachusetts senator a victory over the nationally emerging Clinton. Also four years ago, the early New Hampshire polls clearly showed Buchanan making a significant impact as an anti-Bush, protest candidate. (Today his showing in the polls as a populist/nationalist candidate is in the single digits).
Eight years ago, Bush and Dole were the January front runners for the GOP nomination. Local favorite Dukakis was well ahead in the Democratic race. In fact, his lead in early 1988 was as large as Dole’s is today.
But among other things, such early polls could not take into account the outcome of the Iowa caucuses, which invariably has an important impact on the thinking of New Hampshire voters. Gallup’s David Moore, a veteran New Hampshire pollster observes that voters in the Granite State are frequently swayed by how the national media covers Iowa results in the short time period between the two contests. In 1988 ( In 1992, Iowa meant little to the New Hampshire Democratic race because of favorite son Harkin’s victory), Dole’s victory in Iowa catapulted him into the lead in New Hampshire, which he held until Bush’s final day blitz. Gephardt’s Iowa victory that same year lifted him from the 5% level in the early polls to a solid second place finish, as he became Dukakis’s principal opponent in the Super Tuesday primaries.
Dole’s strength in Iowa this year probably means that a solid second place showing is the best a challenger can hope for. The senior senator from Kansas is unlikely to lose in neighboring Iowa, where the Des Moines Register survey finds him with a 29% point lead over Forbes in its latest sounding. Such a margin in Iowa only makes Dole’s 19% point lead over Forbes in a mid-December New Hampshire survey look all the more formidable.
The question becomes whether a strong second place finisher will emerge in Iowa who will carry momentum into New Hampshire for another strong second place showing. And second could be more than second, if Dole’s margins are considerably narrower than expected. Clearly, last time around, a strong second place finish in New Hampshire was good enough for Bill Clinton.
Centrism, No Passing Fancy
Although political analysts are always on the lookout for signs that the public has become more or less liberal or conservative, polling trends suggest that political values and political labels change slowly. They also indicate that most Americans see themselves as either “moderate” or just left or right of center. The political middle ground remains the place to be, despite the political changes in Washington last fall, and despite the more recent public backlash against GOP leaders.
In 1977, when the CBS/NYT poll asked a nationally representative sample to label its political views, 22% chose liberal, 32% chose conservative and 46% said moderate/not sure. Eighteen years later, after the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions the CBS/NYT poll repeated the question and achieved essentially the same results: 19% liberal, 35% conservative and 45% moderate/not sure. Surveys taken between these two points in time found little variation in replies.
The Los Angeles Times, despite a somewhat differently phrased question, obtains similar results. Its nationwide polls show very little change in long term trend, a plurality of moderates, and a somewhat greater percentage self-identifying as conservative than as liberal. In addition, the Los Angeles Times question allows respondents to declare whether they are very or somewhat liberal or conservative. The small percentage who rate themselves either very liberal (8%) or very conservative (9%) is another indication of the centrist character of the American public.
The Center for the People & the Press also finds that the public takes a centrist position on the basic issue of size of government. It asked respondents to rate themselves on a government activism continuum which is described as:
“1” represents someone who believes government programs should be cut in order to lower taxes, and “6” represents someone who thinks that government programs that help the needy and deal with important national problems should be maintained.
In two nationwide polls this year respondents put themselves in the middle of the range with 3.7 average ratings.
Small Changes in Question Wording Department
Bosnia Reaction Polls: +/- 20,000 Troops
By failing to mention in its question wording that the US is sending 20,000 troops to Bosnia, Gallup found plurality support for the Clinton decision in a poll taken after the president’s November 27 nationally televised speech. In contrast, both the CBS News and the ABC News polls showed solid majority disapproval of the decision in comparably timed national polls that mentioned 20,000 troops in their question wordings. The CBS News poll, which described the NATO mission as “enforcing the peace agreement,” recorded the lowest approval levels.