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Schrödinger’s Poll

Each year, polls seem to become more and more an important part of the political landscape — entities that not only are reflections of public opinion, but have the potential to shape it. This is particularly true on the Democratic side this year, since the race may now be as much in the hands of superdelegates as ordinary voters. Superdelegates are probably looking at general election trial heat polls, like the ones you see on this website, in consideration along with a number of other things. And therefore, things like yesterday’s Gallup finding that 28% of Clinton supporters would vote for John McCain over Barack Obama in the general election are getting a lot of attention.

We’ve written before about the Clinton voters that won’t vote for Obama. Most likely, they consist principally of Southern Baptists, and some older voters; I would guess also that some of the “Security Mom” vote might be in there. Some of these folks really won’t vote for Obama if he wins the nomination, and others are likely to change their minds between now and November. The one thing I’d say is that I’d rather be in a position where I had to win back Democratic voters than win over independent voters. Still, we have three dynamic and unusual candidates in a dynamic and unusual election cycle, and it should not be too shocking that Presidential preferences often blur across party lines.

There is another possibility too, however. What if these people are voting … er… polling tactically? If I’m a Clinton supporter, and I know it’s going to benefit my candidate with the superdelegates to see her polling better than Barack Obama against John McCain, then I’m sure as hell going to tell the interviewer that I’m going to pick McCain over Obama — regardless of my actual intentions. Likewise, if I were an Obama supporter, I’d tell him Obama over McCain — but McCain over Clinton — even if I’d never vote for a Republican for so much as dog catcher.

Mind you, I don’t think this is what is going on, at least not in large numbers. But the sad thing is, where probably at the point where what a person says in a poll is quite literally more important to their candidate’s nomination chances than what they do with their actual vote.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.