Primary polls: South Carolina looks to be in flux and Florida stays too close to call

It is getting hard to know what is happening in South Carolina. Is Clinton on the verge of sinking to third-place? Or is she rather recovering from an awful week in the state and is she now in sight of Barack Obama? There is no question that there would be tremendous shock if the order of arrival is anything but Obama-Clinton-Edwards. If Clinton comes in third, expect a whole new round of stories about her negative campaigning, Bill Clinton crossing the line and that could hurt her terribly with 10 days to go before Super Tuesday. And if Clinton somehow pulls this off or gets within a few points of Obama, the momentum she might get out of it could very well prove unstoppable for the Illinois Senator.

But we aren't there yet, of course. And the mere fact that we are wondering between those two extremities points to both of them being unlikely. But we have to keep our minds open to a surprise looking at the latest polls:

  • The Zogby tracking poll is fascinating, because it examplifies both trends. In today's numbers, Obama is at 38%, Clinton at 25% and Edwards rises at 21%, looking close to overtake Clinton. But Zogby points out that, on Thursday alone, it is Clinton that is looking strong, trailing only by 5%, 36% to 31%, with Edwards at 19%. That's only one third of the sample, so big margin of error, but it does confuse talk of an Edwards surge.
  • Next comes the Mason-Dixon poll which has Obama up 38% to 30%, with Edwards at 19%. Clinton would not be able to trumpet a single-digit loss, but you better believe she would be very relieved.
  • Finally, the most recent PPP poll shows no tightening race at the top whatsoever but confirms that Clinton is getting dangerously close to Edwards: Obama gets 44%, Clinton gets 24% and Edwards gets 19%.
There are hints going in nearly all direction which means one thing: There are a lot of soft backers and undecided voters. And add to that the surprising following statement from ARG's pollster:
For the first time in 10 days, we saw some shifts last night that could change the race. John Edwards is picking up some support among white voters... Clinton is making up support she is losing to Edwards from African American women... If this trend holds tonight coupled with a decrease in African American voting, the race between Clinton and Obama will be closer than our Jan 22-23 survey suggests.

It does seem that all bets are off! In the Zogby poll, Obama is down to 55% of black support, down 10% from two days ago. And Edwadrs is rising from the dead to capture 7% of black voters -- which he really needs to do if he wants to get second. The Mason-Dixon poll also has Obama slightly lower among black voters than he has been in the past few weeks, leading Clinton 59% to 25%. Edwards slightly leads the white vote with 40% to 36% to Clinton. And in a sign of just how absurdly polarized the SC electorate has become along racial lines, Obama gets 10% of white voters!

Meanwhile, both McCain and Romney get good news out of the latest SUSA poll of Florida:

  • McCain gets 30% to Romney's 28%, and everyone else is far behind. Giuliani gets 18% and Huckabee 14%.A few days ago (before THompson's exit), it was McCain up 20% to Giuliani's 20%, with Romney at 19%.
  • Among Democrats, Clinton stays ahead 47% to 30%.
The good news for Romney is evident. He has jumped up 9% in the space of a few days, and has clearly picked up the most Thompson backers. He has distanced Giuliani in his attempt to at least guarantee second-place.

And the good news for McCain is as evident, and I'm not talking about the fact that he is leading. In almost every poll we have seen of Florida in the past few days, McCain has been stuck in a 23% to 26% range. Depending on Romney's percentage, McCain has led or trailed -- but always from the same number. That made me wonder whether McCain could get a large enough plurality of the vote to win in this closed primary, especially with Thompson's withdrawal. So McCain will be happy to see that he is able to get undecideds to break his way and finally break out of the 23-26% range.

Update: A second Florida poll, this one from ARG also has McCain rising higher. He gets 31% to Romney's 26% with Huckabee at 15% and Giuliani at 14%. This is still a slight tightening of the race, as Romney trailed by 7% a few days ago. But Romney probably needs Giuliani to be stronger and take more votes from McCain to be able to top the Arizona Senator.

Keep in mind also that it is absurd to just take Thompson out of these polls entirely as some of these pollsters are doing. Not only will Thompson's name still appear on the ballot, but about a 25% of the electorate had voted by Thompson's withdrawal, meaning that Fred will still get some support on Tuesday. Also ARG very strangely includes a party breakdown, with McCain leading by 3% among Republicans and by a wide margin among the 6% of independents. I'm not sure what that means given that Florida is a closed primary -- who are these independents ARG is polling? Registered Republicans who describe themselves as indies? Or is there a methodology problem here?

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  • Taniel, the self-described independents are probably registered Republicans. When I was working for a phone bank in the distant past, even doing strictly one-party polls, we sometimes left it open for voters how to describe themselves along the scale from very conservative to very liberal. A few people always said they were independents.

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 25 January, 2008 23:13  

  • The self-described independents probably reside in the Panhandle or some other part of the state that's so heavily GOP that the Republican primary basically decides the election in local races -- hence people register as Republicans. (Much like how most people in Chicago register as Democrats whether they sympathize with the national party or not -- if you don't, you'll effectively have no say in local politics.)

    By Anonymous Chicago Joe, At 26 January, 2008 00:48  

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