So, who will win? I have received some version of this question from several people in the last 24 hours. The answer depends entirely on you, the voter. When polling data helps you make up your mind whom to vote for based on who you think will win, the process becomes inverted. In elections, you vote for the candidate you want to win, and the polls either reflect that accurately or they don't.
Some polls show Clement in first with Dean surging Dozier, Gentry, and Briley battling for third. Clement's and Briley's support seems softer, and undecideds have gone to Dean over the last month, by and large. However, every poll shows something different, and they all show significant levels of undecided. Jeff Woods of the Scene criticizes the Channel 4 polling (take that for what it's worth) because it was done by random sampling with no attention to likely voters. Polls always produce at least as much controversy over their methods as they offer in enlightenment about the race. Of course, supporters of the front runner and charging candidates thin the polls show exactly what is happening while the rest of the pack tries to dispute them.
Dean and Briley are running similar campaigns and splitting similar voters. If Dean were not in, Briley would probably have easily advanced to the second round, but for some reason that I don't fully get, Dean supporters seem to dislike Briley on some personal rather than issue-based level, so Dean entered the race late and has run a good TV campaign to vault into serious contention. Dean also seems to be running a decent ground operation.
I spent this morning canvassing in East Nashville where Briley is very popular. I saw a projection that less than 100,000 could wind up voting, and early voting numbers have been low, so it should be any one's game in the first round. While it is hard to see an 8 point swing in polling data in a presidential election, that is exactly what Bush got in Ohio in 2004, and while some conspiracy theories dispute the claim, the last Bush campaign showed that attention to the get out the vote (GOTV) phase of the campaign can render polling data highly inaccurate. In a voter field of around 100,000 (about 1/3 of eligible voters in Nashville), very wide discrepancies between polling data and actual election outcomes are virtually certain. So all the campaigns will be focused on getting their supporters to turn out in these last few days. Early voting continues next week, and election day is August 2.
The bottom line is that whoever works hard in the next week and a half and whoever can convince more people to go to the polls during that time will win. Jesse Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota by reminding people that the voting booth is not the betting window at the track. He reminded people that voting is supposed to be an expression of your personal choice for a leader, not your prediction of who you think MIGHT win. In horse racing, you win when you back the horse who wins. In elections you only win if the candidate you back is the right one. Unlike horse racing where you have no control over the actual race, in voting, your selection determines the winner.
Baseball fans will remember that there were "polls" or at least strong conventional wisdom that the lowly St. Louis Cardinals, winners of just 83 regular season games last year, would be eliminated from the playoffs in the first post season round. Fans of the now defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals understand clearly that the discussions and projections add interest to the story, but the actual outcome is determined on the field. Elections are exactly the same.
So, make sure you exercise your control over the process. Now is the time, and every vote counts.