Monday, January 14, 2008

Dewey Defeats Truman!

In its lead editorial today, our great metropolitan daily (The Richmond Times-Dispatch for you out-of-towners), tried to explain Senator Clinton’s unexpected defeat of Senator Obama in the New Hampshire Democratic primary last week. As you know, before the vote the political polls indicated that Senator Obama would build on his Iowa caucuses victory by thrashing Senator Clinton in New Hampshire. All the political pundits were stunned by Senator Clinton’s seventy five hundred vote victory over Obama. How to explain it?

The TD tried to explain the upset by what it calls “The Wilder Effect.” It harkened back to the 1989 election for governor here in the Commonwealth. Before the election, the polls showed Democrat L. Douglas Wilder (African American) with a significant lead over Republican Marshall Coleman (Caucasian). On the day of the election, however, Mr. Wilder beat Mr. Coleman by a scant few thousand votes. “The Wilder Effect,” according to the TD, is the tendency of white voters to tell pollsters that they will vote for a black candidate although they do not really intend to do so. Presumably, these voters lie to the polls to avoid being perceived as racists. Only in the privacy of the voting booth will they reveal their true preferences.

Good try, TD, but I have a different explanation. The polls were just wrong. Way back when I was a wee lad, cutting my political teeth on a Democratic Party primary election in Brooklyn, USA, I learned the truth about polls, and it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.

In 1965, the New York Democratic Party was choosing between two candidates for mayor—Sanitation Commissioner Paul Screvane and City Comptroller Abe Beam. I campaigned for Screvane going door-to-door in my neighborhood urging people to vote for him. On the night before the election, we sat around the Monroe Democratic Club celebrating our victory the following day. Why this premature party? The final polls on that Monday indicated that Screvane was going to beat Beam rather badly.

But, I forgot to tell you one key fact about the candidates. Paul Screvane was of Italian origin; Abe Beam was a Jew—the first Jew to run for mayor of New York. On Election Day, a funny thing happened. The Beam people hired a large number of busses and transported huge numbers of residents of Jewish senior residences to the polls to vote for Abe. Some came to the polls in wheel chairs; others actually on stretcher beds. Most of these older people hadn’t voted in years. Certainly the pollsters had not included them in their samples. So, on primary day, the Democratic electorate proved the pollsters wrong by choosing Abe Beam, rather than Paul Screvane as their candidate. I call this “The Abe Beam Effect,” or as Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

There is another “effect” that may explain the big New Hampshire upset. I will call this one “The We’re Gonna Teach Those Outsiders a Lesson Effect.” It was explained by a New Hampshire voter the day after the election. He said that people in New Hampshire are very independent and resent all the media and pollsters telling them how they are going to vote. He thought that a significant number of New Hampshire Democrats changed their vote from Obama to Clinton at the polls just to prove the political professionals wrong.

So what is the real reason that Hillary beat Barack in New Hampshire? Frankly dear reader, I don’t give a damn. The fact is that the polls were wrong and Clinton won. “The Guy with the Most Votes is the Winner Effect” triumphs again.

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