Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hillary and Heisenberg

Many are struggling with how to explain final polls in New Hampshire that showed Obama with a commanding double-digit lead from the final results, which ended up with a narrow Clinton victory (39%-37%). Pundits have pointed to her last minute 'tearing', her focus on experience, her support among women, and even President Bill Clinton's exasperated 'fairy tale' charges the night before the primary.

But a more relevant answer may be the following: Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Heisenberg -- talking about atoms -- said that by trying to measure or observe a phenomenon, you invariably disturb its natural course. Thus, the polling in New Hampshire on Monday showed a race that looked effectively over. Women responded by giving their votes to Hillary, perhaps with the intent of narrowing the margin and reducing what looked to be an embarrassing defeat; independent men, thinking that Obama was safely ahead (with the Iowa boomlet), turned to the Republican side where John McCain had been making clear for weeks that unless he won New Hampshire (again), his campaign was effectively over.

Thus, by measuring rapidly-changing public opinion so effectively, and reporting the results so widely, the polls changed what they were in fact measuring. Whether such a confluence of events could ever happen again is debatable. But it happened Tuesday.

On a side note: New Hampshire's voters helped to support the future of the 'first-in-the-nation' NH Primary. If Hillary is elected, there's no way that New Hampshire won't keep 'first' -- at least on the Democratic side -- through 2016. After all, the Clintons owe the state.

Update (1/13): Thanks to reader BM for correcting the author of the theory: Heisenberg, not Heidenberg. Unfortunately, others have made the same typographical error. More important, Heisenberg did not technically identify the 'observer effect', although it is an implication of his theory, which states that certain qualities of subatomic particles cannot be measured; Schroedinger apparently identified the observer effect, which states that "subatomic objects are both waves and particles until direct observation, though the two are often confused." In any event, the post was about an analogy to physics, not a direct relationship; in the future, we'll try to leave physics to the, um, rocket scientists.

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