The Heisenberg primaries
IN THE FIRST 100 days of 2007, the big field of Republican and Democratic candidates running for president collectively spent well over $50 million campaigning, made hundreds of stump speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire and endured several nationally televised debates. Too bad so much of it will prove meaningless.
Don’t get us wrong — an awful gaffe at this stage could be deadly, and there’s no question that early money is crucial. But let’s be honest. The absurdly early start of this primary season has a lot more to do with entertaining bored political elites than with persuading actual primary voters.
It is reminiscent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle we all heard about in high school physics class. Professor Werner Heisenberg postulated that “the more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known.” Applied to the presidential race, this suggests that the more we measure how the candidates stand now, the less we may know about where things are going to end up — because the measurement itself can render the findings inaccurate.
The noisy onslaught of public opinion polling in the media so early in the process would amuse the good professor, because the numbers are really little more than a vain attempt to measure something that hasn’t happened. Although the political and media elites may think the campaign is in full swing, with the fortunes of each candidate rising and falling with every new poll, the truth is that voters — the ones who are really going to decide this race — don’t start the campaign until much later.
Because voters are not required to make a decision until election day, they remain open at this stage in the race to new information, alternative perspectives and late-breaking developments — all of which render today’s poll results, to one degree or another, meaningless.
Consider this: More than two-thirds of the Democrats who voted in the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn’t decide who to vote for until a month before the caucuses. Four in 10 decided in the last week. In 2004, 54% of New Hampshire Democrats decided within a week of the primary. It’s no surprise, then, that in the 2004 election, John Kerry was lagging in third place until only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Kerry then more than doubled his vote in Iowa and nearly quadrupled it in New Hampshire — all in less than 20 days.
Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers are no different. In 1996, nearly a quarter chose their candidate on caucus night or in the preceding two days; fully 42% decided in the last 10 days. And in New Hampshire, only 12% of Republicans decided in 2000 who they would support in the primary before Jan. 1 of election year.
What a sobering thought. Millions raised, then spent, thousands of staffers, all the early spin, all the early endorsements, and all the early everything else consists mainly of campaigns trying to create metrics by which the media can measure their progress. Yet the reality is that there’s not much value in the measurements at this stage of the game.
Meanwhile, the press ignores Heisenberg’s principle — that the measurements themselves, printed in bold type on Page 1, create their own distorted results, inaccurately advantaging some while disadvantaging others. By creating a potentially illusory sense of momentum or of failure, these pseudo-measures affect the extent of media coverage, fundraising, endorsements and the willingness of volunteers to engage.
The result is a cycle. Early national polling is used to declare winners and losers. Those declarations affect the flow of money and coverage, which is then reported as winners and losers, part two, thereby driving the next polls.
In 2003, this cycle nearly buried Kerry.
Let’s face it: While money in the bank, a strong organization, a capable staff and a compelling message will be vital next year when early-primary-state voters start deciding, trying to measure the variables now, for a campaign that for most hasn’t even started yet, can lead to a net loss of knowledge.