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Be smart, save time - ignore the polls

"Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?" asked humorist Bob Orben. And one year before the 2008 presidential election, you have to wonder if the alleged political wise-guys, the ones who have declared the Democratic presidential nominating contest all but over, even think it's necessary to make those frosty trips to Des Moines, Iowa, and Nashua, N.H.

Not for the first time, Washington conventional wisdom is marching very heavily on very light historical ice. If history and those who lived it are any guide, then the 2008 race - some two months before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests are held - is far from over.

You want precedents? At this same point in the last contested Republican presidential fight, Texas Gov. George W. Bush led Arizona Sen. John McCain 68 percent to 12 percent in the Gallup Poll. You may remember that in their first confrontation, two moths later, in New Hampshire, McCain crushed Bush by 18 percent.

Even more dramatic evidence is found in the 1984 Democratic nomination race, where the November 1983 Gallup poll showed former Vice President Walter Mondale with a commanding 47 percent of the vote. Trailing in the same survey were former Ohio Sen. John Glenn (19 percent), former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson (tied at 7 percent), and then-California Sen. Alan Cranston and former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew (tied at 3 percent). Behind them all - with a total within the poll's statistical margin of error - was the man who would shortly sweep to victory by lopsided margins in New Hampshire, Maryland, Florida, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, then-Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.

In the November 2003 Gallup poll among Democratic presidential candidates, John Kerry was tied for fifth and sixth place with then-North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, each with 9 percent. Ahead of them were former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, former Gen. Wesley Clark and former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt. You may remember that, in just a matter of weeks, Kerry would win both the Iowa Caucuses (with Edwards finishing second) and the New Hampshire Primary.

Mark Mellman, who was Kerry's pollster, has written about what happened in Washington's The Hill newspaper: "More than two-thirds of the Democrats who voted in the Iowa Caucuses didn't decide until a month before the caucuses. Four in 10 decided in the last week. Kerry doubled his vote in Iowa (and nearly quadrupled it in New Hampshire) in the last 20 days."

Nor are these pre-primary polls merely weird exceptions. Before he finished third in the 1988 Iowa Caucuses behind winner Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush led the November Gallup with 47 percent of the Republican vote, ahead of Dole (22 percent) and Robertson (7 percent).

We have analyst Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute to thank for assembling these Gallup Poll numbers all the way back to November 1975, when trailing badly in sixth place - the choice of just 3 percent of Democrats - behind Sen. Ted Kennedy, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, McGovern and then-Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson - was the next president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

The 2008 presidential race is not over. It is really only just beginning. Mellman explains: "What happens between November and January will be vastly more important than everything that has occurred until now."

He has history on his side.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.