Florida, Giuliani, Clinton and the Polls

One year before the 2004 election, Joseph Lieberman was polling the highest among Democratic primary voters. He did not, alas, fare very well in the primaries. But his early advantage is easy to explain: name recognition. Just four years earlier, he’d been the party’s Vice Presidential nominee, with his name on every sign and every commercial throughout the campaign. If you tend to be a political junkie (if you’re reading this blog, you are) it’s easy to overlook how important name recognition is, and how much it determines voter choices. Consider the following hypothetical: if I put a gun to your head and asked you to vote right now for either Hillary Clinton for President or Larry Cruz, you’d almost certainly choose Hillary Clinton, no matter what your primary preferences are. The reason, obviously, is that you have no idea who Larry Cruz is (an awesome guy I went to grade school with, who I haven’t seen in nearly twenty years.)

The point is that early polling, or polling that takes place in the absence of an actual campaign doesn’t really tell us anything about the candidates appeal, rather it tells us what their built brand advantage is.Check out this graph of polling of the Republican field in the state of Florida:


Giuliani starts out with a huge advantage: he’s America’s mayor, there are lots of ex-New Yorkers in Florida, etc…But as the candidates actually campaign in Florida, his support plummets. The more they see of Giuliani, the less they like him.

Now look at this graph of polling among Democrats in the Florida:


Hillary Clinton starts out with a huge advantage, which she more or less maintains. With neither candidate actually campaign, no events, no ads (save for a few national ads purchased by Obama), she ended up “winning” by 17 points. But it’s a touch disturbing that Clinton’s biggest win of the primaries so far happened in a state where no one campaigned. If those were the rules nationally, we might very well have had Rudy Giuliani as our next president.

Now comes word today that Obama has closed what was a twenty point gap in national polling to a six point margin, and he’s within four points in California. If you’ve been watching the trend of Obama and Clinton’s respective support this shouldn’t be surprising.

Here’s a paragraph from a piece I wrote for the Nation, that should be up in a few hours:

Pollster.com shows a series of all the polls taken in the Democratic campaign. The graphs plotting national polling numbers as well as those in the first four states show a remarkably consistent pattern. Hillary Clinton starts out with either a modest or, more commonly, a massive lead, owing to her superior name recognition and the [[popularity]] of the Clinton brand. As the campaign goes forward Clinton’s support either climbs slowly, plateaus or dips. But as the actual contest approaches, and voters start paying attention, Obama’s support suddenly begins to grow exponentially.

Take a look at the polls: IA, NH, SC, NV, CA. The more people see of Obama the more they like him. Clinton began this race with tremendous advantage over Obama in name recognition, but whoever wins the nomination won’t have such an advantage against John McCain. They’ll have to win people over and thus far, Obama has proven himself far, far more adept at doing just that.

Chris Hayes is the host of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

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