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This GOP race puts the swing in swing voters

Republican hopefuls take their turns surging in the polls

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 6 2011 12:31 a.m. MST

Atlanta-based tea party activist Jack Starver agrees. "His beliefs. His character. [Romney] is not our guy," said Starver. That Romney has changed positions on key issues like abortion and the individual mandate to purchase health insurance doesn't make help his standing among social conservatives. Some of the religious factions within the Republican party seek an alternative to Romney for other reasons. Over half of Republican or Republican leaning evangelicals consider Mormonism a non-christian tradition according to a Pew Research Center poll released in November of 2011. For voters who want a candidate that represents their religious convictions Mormonism is a non-starter.

Media Attention

To satisfy the conservative demand for an outsider candidate, the media has focused with laser-like intensity on the challenger that appears to be on the rise. On the flip side, candidates who don't receive media attention have difficulty getting traction with voters. "It is hard to rise in the polls when you are invisible," says Quin Monson, associate director at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

If polls suggest that a new candidate may be the real thing, journalists have been flocking to cover every detail. Recall the upswing in media attention Rick Perry received as his poll numbers started to rise. Everything from the particulars of positions on immigration to his controversial plan to give grade schoolers the HPV vaccine were covered at length. The attention can result in increased awareness and, at least initially, better polling numbers.

The nature of the political poll-media attention cycle is reinforced by the bandwagon effect explains Alan Abramowitz, professor of Political Science at Emory University. That is, voters care about what other people think. If polls suggest that a candidate has broad support, they are more willing to give that person serious consideration.

But, what intense media attention gives, intense media attention can take away. "In choosing and displaying news...[journalists], play an important part in shaping political reality" said Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their 1972 landmark study published at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Intense focus on a candidate's flaws can change the way they are perceived by voters.

Consider the impact of coverage on Bachmann's insistence that God caused the 2011 earthquakes on the East Coast, Perry's ineptitude on the debate floor, and Cain's string of alleged sexual improprieties. As their imperfections became manifest, media coverage helped shape a perception that these candidates are not ready for the presidency.

The Nature of Polling

One could easily conclude from this cycle of boom and bust that American voters are a fickle bunch of hypocrites. They shift support from candidate to candidate in quick succession to avoid supporting one accused of changing his mind.

But there is another interpretation. Polls catch people in flux. They offer a glimpse into the decision making process. Responding to a poll is not a binding decision, nor should it be treated that way.

Shifting results in public opinion polls tell us who the public has on their mind, but they are not always a good indicator of who they will ultimately choose in the voting booth. "It really isn't that unusual to see big swings in primary polling numbers" says Abramowitz.

Case in point: the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. After a brief surge by Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani was the front-runner up until voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states rejected him in favor of Huckabee, McCain, or Romney. Similarly, Hilary Clinton enjoyed huge leads in nearly every poll until a majority of voters chose Obama.

This does not mean that polls are inaccurate. It simply means that their predictive power is limited. Polls are a reliable measure of what people are thinking at the moment. But what people are thinking at the moment does not necessarily correlate with what they will ultimately decide.

And this is not such a bad thing. Considering your options is part of the decision making process, a democratic duty.

EMAIL: mwhite@desnews.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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