Suppose the doctor said you had a temperature of 98.6 degrees — "plus or minus 4 degrees."
That's pretty vague. You could have a raging fever of 102. Or you could be freezing to death.
That's about the level of precision of a typical election poll. Yet we treat poll numbers like thermometer readings.
Take the latest St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll in the St. Petersburg mayor's race. It gives Bill Foster 17 percent, Kathleen Ford and Deveron Gibbons 13 percent, and Scott Wagman 10 percent.
But with a 4-point margin of error in either direction, any of these four might be the "real" leader.
And if you're Jamie Bennett or Larry Williams, trailing well back at 3 percent?
Well, what if 3 percent were really 7 percent? What if Ford and Gibbons' 13 percent were really 9 percent? Then only a few hundred votes could be the basis of a "miracle" comeback.
Remember, second place counts — the runnerup gets into the November general election.
And on top of all this, a remarkable 36 percent of voters in the poll were undecided, a week before the primary.
Who knows? Maybe something will happen in the final few days that causes a sharp break. Maybe one of 'em will say something brilliant (or dumb). Maybe they'll start turning on each other.
Or, maybe the race will finish the way it has run all along, with no one able to break away.
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Of the top four, Foster is the safest choice as far as experience, a City Council veteran with his detailed "Foster Formula" platform. The risk with Foster is his Darwin-caused-Hitler, gay-pride-is-icky streak. Foster as pothole-fixer is more appealing than Foster as moralizer-in-chief.
Ford is the smartest. Like Foster a former council member, she's the most detailed critic of City Hall under Mayor Rick Baker. I've heard more folks who listened to the candidates opt for her than any other. She has not shown a whit of the Old Ford who terrorized City Council meetings. Yet enough old-timers remember to be scared. If she's in the runoff, look for the power structure of the entire city to array against her — which will be about an even fight.
Wagman — did you know he owned his own business? — never got far enough past the fact that he used to own his own business. He is more impressive in an hour than he is in five minutes. Most voters don't have an hour. Maybe he wins anyway, but if he doesn't, it's because he ran a campaign that assumed he deserved to win and, indeed, that everybody else was pretty much an idiot. His list of who-I'm-gonna-fire was intemperate.
Gibbons' campaign reminds me of high-school races for class president — who can put up the most posters, get the most people to say they like him (Charlie Crist), and promise the best cafeteria lunches. His young resume looks like somebody trying to build a resume. Much of his campaign money comes suspiciously from out of town. And yet, a mayor is a politician, after all, and even at 36 he is deeply steeped in politics. He can at least talk some of the lingo.
Two of these four will be in the general election, unless we get a pleasant surprise from Bennett or Williams ("pleasant," both for their merits, and because it's fun when polls are wrong). Each of the possible matchups is fascinating. All in all, pretty good election.