Romney's ahead. Huckabee's ahead. Romney… Huckabee… Clinton, no, it's Edwards. Wait – Obama. No, it's…
This is where fascination with the horse race, particularly in a low-turnout caucus, will get you: tied up in knots. We want a single number and simple characterization. It doesn’t exist. What we have are different polls done different ways, many of them overanalyzed to make something out of very little, in fluid and close races.
Six Iowa polls of very varying quality have been completed and released in the last four days. One has Romney ahead of Huckabee; two have Huckabee ahead or slightly ahead of Romney. Then there's a Romney +4, a Huckabee +2 and a Huckabee +1, all within sampling error. These polls put Huckabee's support anywhere from 23 to 36 percent; Romney's, in a closer band, 27 to 32 percent.
In the Democratic race, three of these polls have Clinton ahead or slightly ahead; the others show various flavors of dead heats. Clinton's support ranges from 23 to 31 percent, depending on the poll; Obama's, 22 to 30; Edwards', 24 to 29.
Part of all this can be people moving as they make final decisions. But it's at least as likely to reflect the vagaries of pollsters' efforts to identify and interview likely voters, and quantify their preferences, during a holiday week, in such a low-participation contest. It's wise to take into account the quality of the effort (we've checked them all, and internally we advise which of these polls are best done, which so-so and which don't past muster methodologically). But given all the variables, even good (and so-so) ones differ.
Good polls have set the table: We know the leading candidates, and we know the issues, concerns and characteristics that animate the contest. Late-stage polling can be a warning sign of anything transformational. But beyond that, for the sake of your own sanity, try to avoid getting sucked into the horse-race clutter. Given available data, these contests are best simply characterized as close.
(For more, see also my Outlook piece with Jon Cohen in in today's Washington Post.)