Thursday, August 21, 2008

Presidential polls can say anything

Is it a 5 percent lead, 3 percent or only 2 percent?

For that matter, who’s really in the lead – Barack Obama or John McCain?

BASED ON WHAT you want to believe about the 2008 campaign season for president, there is a political poll that will reinforce it.

Different polls were released Wednesday, and each campaign can find something positive. The survey done by the Gallup Organization showed Democrat Obama with a 2 percent lead over Republican opponent McCain. Another poll commissioned by the New York Times and CBS showed Obama with a 3 percent lead.

Yet the McCain campaign doesn’t have to feel sad. They can merely refer to the poll conducted by Zogby International for the Reuters wire service. It shows McCain with a 5 percent lead over Obama.

Now because the people with Gallup issue updated results every day, their figure is not getting as much attention. Zogby only periodically makes figures available, so their poll seems like it should be a “big event” worthy of bigger play.

YET I HAVE to admit I’m skeptical of the notion that McCain has suddenly developed such a big lead over Obama, even though the Zogby analysts tell us they believe it is the situation between Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia that is causing McCain’s decades in Congress and time in the military to take on a greater importance to some undecided voters.

If anything, it shows how volatile the electorate is when it comes to this campaign season. This is a close race that has seen daily tracking polls sway all over the place. Does anybody remember the 9-percentage point lead Obama had over McCain the day after his speech in Berlin?

That “huge” lead lasted but one day, and was gone entirely one week later when the McCain campaign generated some attention with their television spot hinting that Obama was a political twinkie with little more substance than Paris Hilton or Brittney Spears.

But even that tie only lasted for a day. So excuse me for thinking that the factors that influenced people to tell Zogby pollsters they would prefer McCain over Obama will be gone within another day or two.

THE IDEA THAT McCain would defeat Obama 44 percent to 39 percent (with Libertarian Bob Barr getting 3 percent, consumer advocate Ralph Nader 2 percent and 12 percent more still undecided) may be true – but only if Election Day were on Aug. 20, instead of two and a half months down the road. Who’s to say what figures will be real on Friday, or next week, or next month.

In fact, what I have noticed about the polls comes primarily from the daily figures offered up every afternoon by the Gallup people. Their studies have consistently shown Obama with a 2- or 3-percentage point lead over McCain (on Wednesday, they had Obama beating McCain 45 percent to 43 percent, while the New York Times/CBS poll showed him winning 45 percent to 42 percent).

Only when some “news of the day” quirk comes along do those figures change for a day, before reverting back to the concept of Obama with a narrow lead over McCain.

So what event stands to alter the polls? There are the vice president announcements, which will give each of the candidates a boost for a day – unless one of the running mates acts incredibly stupid.

WITH THE WAY the Obama campaign is milking the anticipation of his choice for a vice president, Barack is going to get a huge jolt of attention. About the only thing that could knock his selection off the news cycle would be the assassination of President George W. Bush – and even then only if it could be shown that Russia President Vladimir Putin were somehow responsible.

Both campaigns also are likely to get a jolt from the nominating conventions. The sight on televisions across the nation of both major party presidential candidates participating in over-glorified pep rallies will make the U.S. electorate inclined to think favorably about both Obama and McCain.

In fact, the Gallup people released an analysis of their past work, showing that presidential candidates usually show a brief 5 percentage point jump in their level of support immediately after the convention. Part of what made 2004 unusual is that it was one of the few campaign years when the candidates (particularly Democrat John Kerry) did NOT get a jump-start.

But this is a different year, and both of these candidates have a sense of how to milk their time in the spotlight so as to increase their levels of support.

IT IS VERY likely that in about a week and a half, there will be a poll (or polls) that show Obama with a huge lead over McCain. About one week after that, those same polls will show that McCain has closed the gap.

Then, we have to watch and see the mood of the country as it works its way through the autumn to Nov. 4. The higher the disgust level people feel toward President Bush, the more likely it is that Obama will be taken seriously.

That is why the most interesting – I think – statistic I read Wednesday was the recent Gallup poll showing the president’s “approval rating” on the rise. It’s only at 33 percent. But that is the highest level of support he has had since February, and is a 5 percent jump compared to last month.

Less disgust with the current political situation is a bonus for McCain. Of course, the disgust level for the president is something that is beyond the control of either campaign. Who knows where it will be at come Nov. 4?

THERE’S ONE OTHER reason I am inclined to disregard the notion of a 5-percent lead for the McCain campaign. Ask Al Gore from 2000 how much the popular vote really matters.

We pick presidents for this country based on the Electoral College. And the same people with Zogby who came up with a 5 percent lead for McCain in the popular vote also have another study on their website – one that breaks down the 50 states based on who their electors would support.

That study (which appears just under the press release touting their newest poll for Reuters) tells us that as of now, McCain wins enough states to gain 146 electors, while another 119 electors come from states that are too close to call.

Yet Obama wins the support in enough states to have 273 electors – when it only takes 270 to win the election. By their own study, Obama Wins!, even if as of right now, slightly more people overall might be willing to take the McCain campaign seriously.

AS THE ZOGBY people note, there could be changes in states that currently are inclined to support Obama, thereby giving McCain more support. Nobody has clinched this election. Which is why the old political cliché, “the only poll that matters is Election Day” is all the more true this year.

In fact, the only thing all of these numbers I have used in writing this commentary really mean is that nobody really knows who is going to win on Nov. 4. Anybody who tells you differently is either lying, or they’re too stupid to take seriously.


EDITOR’S NOTES: On the same day that one pollster had John McCain taking a significant lead ( over Barack Obama, their polling competitors ( showed Obama maintaining the same kind of lead he has held for weeks.

Both of the major party presidential candidates will show a boost in the polls in the days ( right after their nominating convention appearances. The key is to taking that jolt and maintaining it for the next two months.

Three percent of the potential electorate wants this man ( to be president, according to the polls.

Did Obama's lead decline ( slightly?


Monroe Anderson said...

One not-so-incidental matter is modern technology. Many young Americans don't have land lines where a pollster can contact them. Therefore, I strongly suspect, the polling is tilting older--therefore in McCain's favor by some degree.

Anonymous said...

wrote "I strongly suspect, the polling is tilting older--therefore in McCain's favor by some degree."

You are absolutely correct that cell phones are an issue for pollsters. It is an issue that is accounted for through statistical adjustment based on the demographics of this group. In other words, they have already taken into account this reality in the polls. Me thinks Obamanites cannot figure out why their dream boy can't seem to find any separation and hence, try to discredit the polls. Keep banking on that landslide, I'm sure your experienced VP will make up for your candidate's complete lack of experience or substantive policies.

Monroe Anderson said...

Anonymous: I know what you mean. Obama the same amount of experience as Abe Lincoln had when he became president. Here's hoping he performs more like the better experienced George W. Bush than that Illinois Republican rail splinter, right?