updated 10/31/2007 2:18:04 PM ET 2007-10-31T18:18:04

There's a vigorous debate going on these days over whether national polls that suggest Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is running away with the Democratic presidential nomination are correct or even relevant.

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Much of the conversation was triggered by a Gallup Organization analysis from Oct. 22, which said that "Democrats have rarely had a front-runner as dominant as Clinton."

As is so often the case, most of the arguments appear to center around the validity of the polls and critics not agreeing with what the polls actually show. But among others, for example veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, the argument lies in the fact that these national polls do not necessarily reflect what is going on in the early states, where the nomination is more likely to be settled.

Additionally, these critics argue that because Iowa has a caucus system and New Hampshire voters can choose to vote in either primary, these states are notoriously difficult to accurately survey.

While Mellman and others are absolutely correct that this isn't one national primary, two caveats should be added.

First, there will be a national primary on Feb. 5, or "Tsunami Tuesday," when more than 20 states will vote in every corner of the country. This reflects what can be considered a pretty accurate microcosm of the nation. To this extent, it is not illogical to think the national polls are a reflection of reality at the time the poll is taken.

Second, these aren't polls of voters on a different continent than the voters in the early states. There is an interconnectedness in the reactions to various candidates and in who is moving up or down.

There are of course limits to this. For example, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is doing great in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, but is barely moving up in the national polls. However, on the Democratic side, the national polls have been pretty accurate measurements of which candidates have and don't have momentum and they haven't been disconnected from the Iowa and New Hampshire surveys.

Finally and most importantly, what is happening in the national polls is not contradicted by any other aspect of the race.

Clearly the race is closest in Iowa, where former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., led pretty consistently in the polls until the second half of the summer. Now, Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., are on roughly parallel tracks.

Iowa is about the only important state where Clinton does not have a formidable lead. Most analysts and strategists agree that if Clinton wins Iowa, the nomination will almost certainly be hers. However, even if Clinton loses Iowa, she can survive and probably have better than an even shot at the nomination.

This conclusion can be drawn based on her strong advantages in polls, organization and money.

My hunch is that if Clinton wins Iowa, she will have an overwhelmingly likely shot at winning the nomination. If she loses the Hawkeye State, her odds drop, but she will still have better-than-even odds of securing the Democratic spot. Basically, she appears to be the only candidate at this point who can sustain a loss in Iowa, and her double-digit leads in many national polls suggest that she has a pretty formidable firewall behind Iowa.

What is working against Obama in Iowa is that his support is found mainly among young, college-educated people and blacks. He runs evenly with Clinton on the national level in each of these groups, but she beats him among virtually every other constituency.

While Iowa is a relatively highly educated state, the demographics do skew toward an older population, and there is not a large black population. The caucus balloting is also weighted heavily for rural and small-town areas and less so for the cities, another factor that works against Obama. Rate candidates' positions

To be sure, if Clinton is stopped, it has to begin in Iowa, but that no longer appears to be as likely as it once was.

Some argue that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's formidable standing in the polls, including national ones, going into the closing days before the Iowa Caucus in 2004 is good reason to ignore them now. However, these critics forget that Dean's downfall began when the polls started to reflect doubts about his electability.

Those same polls do not show similar electability arguments working against Clinton. In fact, most Democrats see her as more electable than Obama.

The critics are right that anyone focusing exclusively on the national nomination polls is making a mistake, but I'm not sure who is doing that.

The national polls, when they point in the same direction as the other indicators, become a useful and efficient way to assess the current political climate.

In this case, the national polls reflect much of what is happening in the early states, with Iowa the one asterisk that has to be watched carefully for signs that it will pull the race in a different direction.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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