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Government, Politics & Issues

Analysis: What's the Wright factor in Tuesday's primary?

Editorial cartoon showing rev. wright's shadow over the obama logo
John Sherffius | Boulder Daily Camera | St. Louis Beacon Archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2008: Tuesday’s Indiana and North Carolina presidential primaries will be the first ballot box tests of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s impact: a lifeline for Hillary Clinton, an anchor for Barack Obama or just some flotsam among the waves?

At first glance, the pre-election polls suggest that Wright’s impact on the contest in both Indiana and North Carolina is at best marginal. Wright’s three-day media frenzy began April 26 and culminated in the National Press Club appearance on April 28. Even in a 24/7 news environment, it normally takes two days for public opinion to start settling as the information is first consumed and then processed through reflection and conversations.

Averaging the six Indiana polls conducted between April 20 and April 27, Clinton had a narrow and statistically insignificant 47 percent-44 percent lead over Obama. For the five surveys done between April 29 and May 3, it remains almost the same: Clinton 48 percent, Obama 43 percent. Comparable before-and-after results from North Carolina are Obama 52 percent/Clinton 38 percent pre-Wright and Obama 50 percent/Clinton 42 percent post-Wright.

The Gallup Poll”s national tracking surveys on the Clinton/Obama battle reveal a slightly larger shift. It was Obama by one percentage point for both the April 22-24 (Obama 48 percent, Clinton 47 percent) and April 25-27 (Obama 47 percent, Clinton 46 percent) polls but changed to Clinton ahead, 49 percent to 45 percent, for April 28-30.

Examined individually for the two states and the country as a whole, each pre-post change falls within the margin of error, meaning that there is a greater than 5 percent chance or more that they could be simply be random variation. But when independent tests all find something going in the same direction, even if the movement is relatively small, it buttresses the notion that something might be happening.

Because Indiana and North Carolina both have open primaries where independents and Republicans can participate in the Democratic primary, wider swings are more likely in the campaign’s final week.

By contrast, Pennsylvania has a closed primary where only registered Democrats can vote. That made the pre-election polls more reliable since the deadline for changing party registration had passed well before the April 22 election. The surveys done in the Pennsylvania in the run-up to the election had Clinton seven points ahead, close to her final nine-point victory margin.

That’s not the situation in the May 6 primaries. There is still time for an even more powerful anti-Wright wave to boost Clinton’s performance. Two SurveyUSA polls conducted for Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics demonstrate the possibilities.

In the April 14-16 survey of likely Democratic primary voters, independents favored Obama over Clinton by 59 percent to 33 percent. In the April 28-30 poll, the results essentially reversed: Clinton 56 percent, Obama 38 percent. If the Wright phenomenon both changes independent voters’ minds and draws more of them into the election, that could be a big boost for Clinton.

Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

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