Did Race Cost Obama New Hampshire?

Hillary Clinton Smiles New Hampshire Win The pre-election polls universally showed Barack Obama beating Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire. Reputable outfits screening for likely Democratic primary voters anywhere from 5 to 13 percent, with an average win of 8.3 percent. Even applying a +/-3 to both Obama and Clinton’s numbers, that’s a comfortable win.

Further, turnout was extraordinarily high, which the conventional wisdom had as good for Obama. “New” voters tend to be either independents or young people, both of whom were key Obama demographics.

So, what happened?


The obvious answer is that polling is not any good. After all, nobody ever calls the Ron Paul supporters, right? (Although, oddly, they polls tend to predict Paul’s vote quite well.) But if you look at the numbers, the pollsters were uncannily accurate except for the embarrassing undercount of Clinton votes.

Obama Clinton Edwards Richardson
RCP Prediction 38.3 30.0 18.3 5.7
Actual Vote (96%) 37 39 17 5

They also nailed the Republican contest:

McCain Romney Huckabee Giuliani Paul Thompson
RCP Prediction 31.8 28.2 12.2 9.3 8.2 2.2
Actual Vote (96%) 37 32 11 9 8 1

Both McCain and Romney got more votes than expected, presumably because undecideds not included in the prediction tally broke for the frontrunners, figuring it was a two-man race. But the order of finish was exactly right and all totals except McCain’s were easily within the margin of error.


There have been several notable elections in recent American history with major polling discrepancies in races involving a black candidate facing a white candidate.

Specifically, there have been instances in which statistically significant numbers of white voters tell pollsters in advance of an election that they are either genuinely undecided, or likely to vote for the non-white candidate, but those voters exhibit a different behavior when actually casting their ballots. White voters who said that they were undecided break in statistically large numbers toward the white candidate, and many of the white voters who said that they were likely to vote for the black candidate ultimately cast their ballot for the white candidate. This reluctance to give accurate polling answers has sometimes extended to post-election exit polls as well.

Researchers who have studied the issue theorize that some white voters give inaccurate responses to polling questions because of a fear that they might appear to others to be racially prejudiced. Some research has suggested that the race of the pollster conducting the interview may factor into that concern. At least one prominent researcher has suggested that with regard to pre-election polls, the discrepancy can be traced in part by the polls’ failure to account for general conservative political leanings among late-deciding voters.

As Obama booster Andrew Sullivan observes, “Tonight is the first primary – not a caucus. People get to vote in a secret ballot – not in front of their largely liberal peers, as in Iowa. They may have told the pollsters one thing about voting for a black man, but in the privacy of the voting booth, something else happens.” David Kuo concludes, “despite all the talk of how little race matters in this campaign, it is clear that race is still a big deal in bi-racial campaigns.”

Plausible, perhaps. But this isn’t a general election contest between a black liberal and a white conservative but rather a primary contest among Democratic Party liberal activists. And Obama isn’t really black, anyway. Just ask Alan Keyes. Or Christopher Hitchens.

Plus, as the tables above demonstrate — and Matt Yglesias explores at greater length — the polls got Obama’s numbers just right; it was just Clinton who got an unexpected late surge.


One theory that’s gaining credence — and Clinton herself seemed to allude to in her victory speech — is that she was humanized by Monday’s incident wherein she teared up in her passionate response to a question about the travails of the campaign. In my contemporary analysis of the incident, I suggested that it could only help.

But 9 points for crying? A rise of nearly a third? That seems incredibly unlikely.


Kevin Drum and others have suggested that there may have been a voter backlash against the media’s piling on about a Hillary loss, constantly playing the aforementioned crying video, and so forth.

As Matt Yglesias said, “I don’t think pissing off Chris Matthews is a good enough reason to pull the lever for Clinton, but I can certainly understand the impulse.” Me too.

But nobody’s watching Chris Matthews anymore. And, really, it’s hard to figure that there are that many people who are undecided the day before an election who are going to get up off their coach, stand in line, and vote.


One commenter on a blog I was reading this morning noted that, with all the talk of Hillary’s pulling out of the race, Hillary’s emotional breakdown, Bill Clinton railing about unfair treatment, and so on that the coverage was wall-to-wall Clinton. That’s a lot of free exposure.

The only problem with that is this is Hillary Clinton we’re talking about. She’s been in the national spotlight since 1992. Even people who only casually pay attention to politics (which is to say, most people) have rather firm ideas about who she is.


Mike Potemra, a follow writing at the Corner of whom I had not heard until this morning, may well have hit the bullseye:

[W]e should be encouraged that voters can stand up against an emotional 24/7 media Valentine for one candidate, and vote instead for a person they think will be a steadier and more reliable Commander-in-Chief (especially important in time of war).

The Clinton machine has been hammering the message since Iowa that Obama, for all his charm, is simply not yet ready to be president. Maybe, just maybe, people listened. It’s not, after all, that hard a case to make.


Clinton is a woman. She did very well among women. There are a lot of women out there. You do the math.


Jon Krosnick thinks at least three percentage points can be explained by the vagaries of ballot placement.

Our analysis of all recent primaries in New Hampshire showed that there was always a big primacy effect — big-name, big-vote-getting candidates got 3 percent or more votes more when listed first on the ballot than when listed last. Until this year, New Hampshire rotated candidate name order from precinct to precinct, which allowed us to do that analysis.

This year, the secretary of state changed the procedure so the names were alphabetical starting with a randomly selected letter, in all precincts. The randomly selected letter this year was Z. As a result, Joe Biden was first on every ballot, Hillary Clinton was near the top of the list (and the first serious contender listed) and Barack Obama was close to last of the 21 candidates listed. Thus, I’ll bet that Clinton got at least 3 percent more votes than Obama simply because she was listed close to the top.

Most, if not all, of the pre-election telephone polls rotated name order from respondent to respondent, which meant name order did not distort their overall results. Failing to incorporate the name order effect that probably happened in the voting booth is therefore probably partly responsible for the polls’ inaccuracy.

As bizarre as it seems that people would bother to go out into the cold (as is historically the case for the NH primaries, although not yesterday) to vote in the primaries without having a firm idea for whom they were going to vote, the data show that many in fact do precisely that. A very interesting issue, then.

One wonders why the rotation practice was abandoned? Presumably, cost? They may need to change back if this bears out.


In social science, looking for a single variable to explain outcomes tends to be problematic. Likely, it was a combination of the above factors, and quite probably some not listed, that explains what happened yesterday.

What do you think?


*Added late. Usually, I add updates to the bottom but the nature of this post benefits from a more standard flow.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 2008 Election, Public Opinion Polls, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The difference is only a bit over the margin of error. Add a smidgeon of anti-frontrunner perverseness and I think “all of the above” is probably the best explanation.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, it’s just a bit outside margin of error in terms of head-to-head win/lose. But Clinton gained 9 points, well outside the margin, and the head-to-head went from 8 point Obama win to 2 point Clinton win — a 10 point swing. Even factoring in the +/-3 worst case both ways, there’s still 4 points unaccounted for.

  3. Anderson says:

    I forget where I saw it last night, but supposedly there were about 17% answering “undecided” in the polls, and those evidently broke largely for Hillary. Presumably a lot of the undecided who didn’t vote Hillary, just didn’t vote, period.

    That seems a much more mundane explanation than some of the race/sex-based ones.

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    But this isn’t a general election contest between a black liberal and a white conservative but rather a primary contest among Democratic Party liberal activists.

    No, James, this was a New Hampshire primary with a lot of independents voting. Add to that the fact that Clinton won among the lesser educated and those making low incomes, plus the fact that New Hampshire is 95% white, I don’t see how you can think that race isn’t a factor. Trust me, white working class Democrats in New England are not 100% free of racism.

  5. LaurenceB says:

    Andrew “I Hate Hillary” Sullivan has floated another theory this morning: Independents were most drawn to Obama and McCain but they couldn’t vote for both; since they saw polls had Obama winning handily, they chose to cast their vote for McCain.

    I’m not endorsing this theory, just saying it could be added to the list. I thought the list was excellent, by the way – just the sort of thing I read blogs for.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think the actual numbers support the “independents voted for McCain” hypothesis.

    there’s still 4 points unaccounted for.

    and I think that’s accounted for by your list plus a little contrariness on the part of New Hampshire voters.

  7. Anderson says:

    Add to that the fact that Clinton won among the lesser educated and those making low incomes

    … who, IIRC, were less likely to be represented in Iowa’s wacky caucuses.

  8. Tlaloc says:

    Gut feeling is that the undecideds went hard for Hillary based on the public trashing she was getting from basically everyone.

    But that’s just a gut feeling.

  9. yetanotherjohn says:

    Given that all the numbers line up pretty well between polled and actual results, what is left is the undecideds who seemed to have come out for Clinton. It explains all the numbers with the only fly in the ointment that you just don’t usually see 90+% of undecideds in the pre-election poll break towards one candidate.

    You might be able to point to the 1% drop off for Obama from poll vs actual as the ‘private racism’ theory, but it is also well within the normal polling margin of error.

  10. Tlaloc says:


    Maybe Obama lost more than 1% from undeclared racism and the split in undecided made up for all but 1. That’d help explain the first issue you mention.

  11. just me says:

    I would be willing to bet there was a racism factor.

    Having lived in the South (KY, SC, NC, AL and VA) and lived in NH-the racism is very much here, it is just different.

    Not sure that it accounts for the entire difference, but I am willing to bet at least some people answered one thing and voted something else.

    Also, it may be how hard NH was hit this week.

    Hillary at least appears to have done more events and Bill was also here (I didn’t actually look at schedules-so it is possible they did about the same number, but Hillary is boosted by having her husband).

    Maybe she had a better “get out the vote” effort.

  12. floyd says:

    If the Democrats could only quit thinking with their genitals or their skins and start using their brains, they’d be……..oh yeah…Republicans!! Nevermind![lol]

  13. Nascar says:

    With some undecideds declared as incognito racists apparently alleviating Obama campaign. However it can’t be determine by such factor as the the campaign is running extremely close. Only the very last minute will determine the victor.