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Parsing the Polls: Is Thompson Too Late or Right on Time?

With less than 24 hours to go until Fred Thompson's formal entry into the 2008 presidential race, The Fix thought it made sense to scan the available polling data to figure out whether Thompson waited too long to get into the campaign for the GOP nomination.

Fred Thompson
Fred Thompson speaks at the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference in Indianapolis on Aug. 25. (AP Photo)

Roll Call columnist Stu Rothenberg already has an opinion: Thompson blew his best chance by not getting into the race in the spring or summer. "In delaying his entry into the Republican race, Thompson has looked indecisive and weak," writes Rothenberg in in his Monday column (subscription only). "He has lost potential supporters and contributors to other campaigns. And he has limited the strategic options of his campaign. But maybe more than anything else, he gave an opening first to Romney and more recently to Huckabee that neither would have had."

Thompson pollster John McLaughlin has a memo of his own. Historic patterns, he says, suggest that his candidate has plenty of time to convince voters why he is the best choice. "In a Republican primary, it is never too late for a true leader with authentic conservative credentials," writes McLaughlin.

Let's Parse the Polls!

McLaughlin begins his memo by citing a recent Hotline/Diageo survey showing that just 54 percent of Republican primary voters were satisfied with the current GOP field while 38 percent were not. "This dissatisfaction creates a fluidity which creates opportunity for an authentic conservative like Fred Thompson."

True ... to a point. There is incredible fluidity in the Republican race, and those most likely to vote have repeatedly voiced their dissatisfaction with the field. But is it safe to assume that voters don't already consider Thompson to be in the race? After all, he has been acting like -- and the national media have treated him like -- an official candidate for the past several months. Thompson may be new to the field technically, but he isn't exactly new to anyone who has been paying any real attention to the race.

The second and larger point made in the McLaughlin memo is that exit polling in early states in recent competitive presidential nomination fights proves that voters tend to make up their minds in January, right before the first votes are cast. In the 1996 Republican race, roughly one-in-four Iowa caucus-goers made up their mind in the final three days, while 42 percent total chose their candidate in the final week. Those numbers are similar to late deciders in 1996 in New Hampshire (23 percent chose on primary day). That same year in South Carolina, 55 percent of Republican primary voters decided sometime in the last week of the race. Four years later the numbers in New Hampshire and South Carolina were very similar.

A score for McLaughlin and Thompson, right? Not exactly. As Washington Post polling director Jon Cohen pointed out to The Fix, most respondents to these exit polls may not want to admit that they made up their minds months ago, instead of at the end of the campaign after thoughtful consideration of the issues and the candidates. Second, the way the exit poll question is asked tends to favor late-deciding responses. The options often offered to respondents are "today," "in the last three days," "in the last week," "in the last month" or "before that" -- three "late-decider" options and two "early decider" options, a fact that may subtly influence voters to choose a late option even if they made their decision much earlier.

A scan at the other available polling data offers no obvious support for or against the Thompson campaign's views.

On the one hand, Thompson ran second in almost every national poll conducted in July and August. And, at times, he even beats out Rudy Giuliani for first. It's a not an insignificant pool of surveys -- 19 polls are aggregated on the wonderful pollster.com site -- and they show that while Thompson clearly lost steam for his candidacy within the Beltway over the summer he remains right at the center of the fight nationally.

In the early voting states, however, Thompson's numbers are not as reassuring. Again, according to pollster.com, eight polls have been conducted in Iowa since July; Thompson finished second in two, third in four and fourth in two. The numbers are more bleak in New Hampshire, where of the six surveys conducted since the start of July Thompson takes third place in four and fourth place in two.

The notable exception to that early state trend is in South Carolina, where Thompson's southern roots and name identification seem to be resonating. Thompson leads in two surveys, places second in two and third in just one poll, according to pollster.com.

So what gives? Thompson's continued strong standing in national polling reinforces the idea that for most voters the race is yet to begin, and Thompson's high name recognition -- thanks in part to his television and movie roles -- continues to make him a serious player in the race. In Iowa and New Hampshire, however, where voters are paying the closest attention to the race at the moment, Republicans don't yet view Thompson as their party's savior.

As we have said before, presidential campaigns require substantial organization. Thompson's poll numbers show he still has a chance at the nomination, but the real test is not where his poll numbers are but whether he can build effective campaign organizations in the early primary states and compete against the already established Giuliani and Romney efforts.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 5, 2007; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Parsing the Polls  
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