A woman who recognized me on the street, thanks to my tireless self-promotion, asked me on the day after the New Hampshire primary: "In a word, why did Barack Obama lose?"
In a word? Gimme a break, lady.
That's how pollsters and media pontificators, including me, got our predictions wrong. We oversimplified based on what we knew.
All the published polls taken right through Jan. 7 put the Illinois senator comfortably ahead by an average of more than 8 percent. The numbers seemed to be backed up by visual evidence. Obama's rallies overflowed. Hillary Clinton's spokespeople said they'd be satisfied if they merely avoided a wipeout.
But irrational exuberance had taken hold. For one thing, the polls, news coverage and commentary tended to count undecided voters as if they were decided. They weren't.
After headlines like "Clinton braces for second loss" in The Wall Street Journal, Obama's narrow loss looked like a landslide victory for Clinton.
What happened? In a word, I think the nice woman was expecting me to say, "Race." As much as the biracial Obama deserves praise for "transcending race" in his campaign, you don't have to be black to have your race-radar turned on full alert for any unfair slights or outright rip-offs .
Enough black candidates have lost to white candidates or won narrow victories after polls showed them well ahead that the phenomenon has a nickname. Pollsters call it the "Bradley Effect" after Tom Bradley, Los Angeles' first black mayor. His 10-point lead in the polls evaporated into a narrow loss in his 1982 gubernatorial race against George Deukmejian.
What may have thrown the pollsters off in New Hampshire was not race or gender, but class. Polling expert Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, suggests in a New York Times essay that pollsters got it wrong not because respondents were lying but because lower-income and less-well-educated voters are less likely to agree to answer pollsters' questions. Whites who do not respond to surveys, Kohut wrote, "tend to have more unfavorable views of blacks than respondents who do the interviews."
Indeed, a closer look at the New Hampshire figures reveals that the pollsters predicted Obama's turnout just about right. The surprise came mostly in Clinton's larger-than-expected voter turnout, especially among women.
Media, including me, underestimated women again. I say "again" because Clinton's surprise victory reminded me of a Democratic primary in which a black candidate received more white votes than expected. In 1992, angered by popular Illinois Sen. Alan Dixon's vote to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Carol Moseley Braun scored an upset victory, thanks largely to an unanticipated turnout by white suburban women.
Now as then, Clinton's upset similarly sends everyone searching for a single pivotal explanatory turning point in winning over the late deciders.
Was it the moment in the coffee shop when she seemed to choke up and grow misty-eyed on camera while explaining why the White House is so important to her?
Was it her flashes of charm and humility during an earlier debate when she responded with a big smile in response to a question about why people find Obama more likable: "Well, that hurts my feelings."
Or was it the dimwit heckler in a Salem, N.H., town hall meeting who waved a sign and yelled: "Iron my shirt!" To which she responded, "Ah, the remnants of sexism alive and well!"
How about all of the above? A political campaign is a series of events, Lee Atwater, the late Machiavellian political consultant, used to say. In New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton made the events work in her favor.
Cynics and hard-core Hillary haters accuse her of faking it. I'm pretty cynical sometimes too. But the worst I can say after replaying these moments on YouTube is that, if she was acting in any of these instances, she deserves an Oscar.
One way or another, she shed like an old coat the regal robo-candidate image that distanced her from late-deciding voters as they wondered whether she was on their side.
She found her voice, she said. For her, it came not a moment too soon.