U.S. Presidential Primaries and the Caucus-Convention System: A Sourcebook

By James W. Davis | Go to book overview
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13 Polls and Primaries

Public opinion polls have become as much a part of presidential nominating races as the general election. Indeed, as presidential nominating stakes have risen steadily with the continued spread of primaries, measuring public attitudes has taken on vital importance.

Public opinion polls, still in their infancy when World War II began, have become sensitive barometers in presidential nominating races. Long before the national conventions, polls reveal the front-runner, show nip- and-tuck races between leading contenders, and expose poor vote getters.

There are two kinds of polls: public and private. Public opinion polls, such as Gallup, Harris, and the New York Times/CBS News, are published periodically to reveal the latest sounding of the public's view toward various candidates or other political phenomena. The distinguishing feature of the published polls is that they are conducted as a form of journalism to inform the public about the political world and not for political intelligence. Private polls are those commissioned for the personal use of candidates and staff in charting campaign strategy and tactics.

Because the Gallup and Harris polls are now considered reliable barometers of candidate popularity, all presidential contenders make it an early objective to gain top ranking in the preprimary opinion poll ratings. Those early favorable ratings can be used to build momentum, raise campaign funds, and generate additional media coverage. By pinpointing the probable winners in the primaries, public opinion polls affect the amount of attention the media will give each candidate. Especially during the preprimary season, this added media coverage for the front-runner helps attract more financial support and campaign volunteers. If a candidate is doing well in the polls, it is a foregone conclusion that he or she is doing well in the


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