Virtually every report on the eve of the New Hampshire primary talked about Hillary Clinton’s poor poll position.

The CNN/University of New Hampshire poll put Barack Obama nine points ahead of Clinton, 39% to 30%, with John Edwards on 16%. The Monday Rasmussen tracking poll showed a collapse in Clinton’s national polling lead over Obama to four points. Before the Iowa caucuses, she enjoyed a 17-point lead. Gallup had the pair tied.

“There will be a serious, critical look at the final pre-election polls in the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire; that is essential,” Gary Langer, the director of polling at the US ABC network says. “It is simply unprecedented for so many polls to have been so wrong. We need to know why.”

Polling embarrassments are not unknown here. ACNielsen had egg on their face after November’s federal election.

Voluntary voting makes polling more complicated, but pollsters have formulas to accommodate this.

Still, this may have been a factor. “Those polls may have been accurate, but done in by a superior get-out-the-vote effort, or by very late deciders whose motivations may or may not ever be known,” Langer says.

There could be another explanation, too. Stanford University Professor Jon Krosnick points out that until this year, New Hampshire rotated candidate name order from precinct to precinct. “This year,” he says, “the secretary of state changed the procedure so the names were alphabetical starting with a randomly selected letter, in all precincts. The randomly selected letter this year was Z. As a result, Joe Biden was first on every ballot, Hillary Clinton was near the top of the list (and the first serious contender listed) and Barack Obama was close to last of the 21 candidates listed.”

Krosnick claims this may have been worth three per cent to Clinton; what we would call a good old donkey vote.

“There will be a lot of claims about what happened – about respondents who reputedly lied, about alleged difficulties polling in biracial contests,” Langer says. “That may be so. It also may be a smokescreen – a convenient foil for pollsters who’d rather fault their respondents than own up to other possibilities – such as their own failings in sampling and likely voter modelling.”