The most notable legacy of the New Hampshire primary will be the soiled reputations of leading pollsters and political consultants. For at least the past two decades we have worshiped at the altar of these glorified statisticians. Now the truth is out – these know-it-alls – don't know much more than we do.
The beauty of politics is its unpredictability – but the imprecise nature of this sport is often too much for some people to handle. Thus, at some point in time, the political establishment sought to turn this fine art into an exact science. An industry was created where people tried to figure out a secret formula for success. Unfortunately, all it has done has made politicians sound formulaic – and in the process turned off large swaths of the electorate.
Once the political consultants get involved, we often get milquetoast pabulum from the contenders that appeals to the lowest common denominator. The heart of the problem is that politics, like music, hits many emotional notes that can't be neatly figured out on a spreadsheet. What matters are the intangibles that ignite the imagination, and thus can't be so easily quantified.
So, it is no coincidence that Mike Huckabee – a man that until recently could not afford to take polls and had few political hacks on the payroll – was able to defeat Mitt Romney, who spent $10 million in Iowa. Unencumbered by canned talking points, Huckabee speaks from the heart and connects with the voters.
It was a blessing in disguise for him (not in the literal sense that Huckabee suggests) that he could not afford Washington consultants. They would have used focus groups to test every one of his jokes and the vast majority of his barbs would never have seen the light of day. He would have lost his groove and sounded like Romney with a southern accent – and would have likely been out of the race already as a result. Going with his instincts, he solidified his outsider status. We can only hope that his recent success and infusion of contributions will afford him the best Washington insiders money can buy.
Likewise, the pollsters in New Hampshire told us that Barack Obama was going to defeat Hillary Clinton by double digits. On the brink of defeat, however, Clinton showed her vulnerable side and voters rallied to her side. What the experts never expected was that going "off message" was the only message that would save her. When she briefly scrapped her staid talking points for spontaneous crying points, voters finally bonded with her. Clinton should consider firing her high-priced gurus and replacing them with on-sale bags of onions at the Price Club.
I'm not saying that politicians should get rid of all pollsters and political consultants. They are good at helping candidates understand the public's priorities. But, I am suggesting that the candidates can't be encouraged to ignore their gut feelings on the campaign trail. The public is hungry for honest politicians who don't need to check with three "experts" before they complete a sentence.
This lesson also pertains to the GLBT movement. There are some who rely too much on polling and focus groups to frame our message. They forget that focus groups only reinforce the status quo by letting us know where the public currently stands. The job of activists, however, is to move the conversation forward by telling people painful truths that they might not want to hear. When the GLBT community crafts messages on what people are already comfortable with, how does that advance the cause?
Somehow, the women's suffrage and civil right's movements managed to inspire and change the world without umpteen polls and focus groups. In fact, it seems the rhetoric was more inspiring back when every phrase wasn't poured over and parsed. Today's GLBT speeches often sound like a listless array of nothing sprinkled liberally with the word "equality." It appears the goal is not to screw up, rather than actually inspire.
The three most underrated ingredients in politics are heart, originality and intuition. To stay in business, consultants must convince insecure candidates or movements not to trust themselves and rely on the "hard data" – which we have found in campaign 2008 is hardly reliable. If Iowa and New Hampshire taught us one thing it is that authenticity beats plasticity. While America may finally be ready to elect its first African American or woman President – the country seems in no mood to elect a robot. The candidate who comes across as least programmed is the one who will sit in the Oval Office.