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posted: 3/20/2014 5:01 AM

Another object lesson in the problems with political polls

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Now about those political polls ...

In sports, the common epithet when the lesser of two seemingly unevenly matched opponents wins or very nearly wins is "that's why they play the game." In politics, the sentiment is the same, it's just a different arena: "That's why they hold elections."

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Case in point, Kirk Dillard's surprising showing Tuesday against maverick front-runner Bruce Rauner in the bid for the Republican nomination for Illinois governor. Literally for months leading up to the election, the overriding impression of the campaign was defined by poll numbers showing Rauner with a commanding lead. Some polls predicted him winning by as many as 30 percentage points.

When the dust had settled early Wednesday, Rauner's margin was about one-tenth of that prediction. Yes, he won, but -- as I discussed in a column several weeks ago -- beyond that, there's plenty of room to question whether the polls did more harm than good. In that regard, the Rauner-Dillard showing emphasizes why Daily Herald political reporting strives to leave the poll watching to others.

No doubt, the endless speculations about one sports team's chances against a formidable opponent have an effect on their game. They may incite the lesser team to surges of adrenaline it couldn't have generated otherwise. They may cripple the presumed dominant team with overconfidence. Likewise, the story of the polls surely had some potential effect on this election. Did it keep overconfident Rauner supporters at home? Did it invigorate Dillard supporters with determination?

Probably a little of both, but it's instructive to reflect that its greater effect was to distract voters from the issues that distinguished the candidates and endlessly emphasize that drama lay in the parlor game of predicting who would win rather than in sorting out what each candidate had to offer.

Perhaps the most destructive aspect of the poll story -- and at the same time, its most important lesson -- in the GOP campaign was its emergence so early, thanks to the independent wealth that enabled Rauner to begin running television campaign ads for months while his opponents hoarded their more-limited funds for the final weeks leading up to the election. For those of us already alarmed by the early creep of election campaigns and the influence of money on elections, the implications of Rauner's strategy forebodes an ever-increasing political arms race in which more and more money must be raised to start ever-earlier campaigns.

Which might not be so bad if such messages actually helped us get to know candidates better, but, as evidenced particularly by the shallow, hostile broadcast advertising produced by the anti-Rauner forces in response to his early success, the opposite is too often the case.

Even before midnight Tuesday, pro-Pat Quinn forces already had begun launching broadcast attacks aimed at portraying Rauner as an uncaring wealthy interloper and Rauner already had begun soliciting money to buy ads to counter them. Nor were such premature appeals limited to the governor's race. No sooner had the polls closed than emails began flying from all corners of the political spectrum -- including the coming congressional showdown between Republican Bob Dold and Democrat Brad Schneider, neither of whom even had a primary race.

Everyone, clearly, is looking for that early break, those early poll numbers. But those won't be driving the Daily Herald's political coverage. We expect to focus on the candidates and their ideas. That, as I say, is why they hold the elections. And that's where we, and I hope you with us, will concentrate our attention.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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