Pondering the Polls

Those of you who are worried about the state of the Presidential race and who regard my prediction that Mitt Romney will win by a landslide as more than slightly unhinged might, nonetheless, without abandoning your low opinion of my prescience, take comfort from last night’s post on this subject by Michael Barone.

Michael is a sober fellow — not apt to credit long-term predictions like my own — but he does not find the polls suggesting a wide lead by President Obama nationally or in the swing states plausible, and he knows whereof he speaks. From 1974 to 1981, he worked for Peter Hart as a pollster. When he examines a poll, he knows what to look for under the hood.

Michael is especially good at pointing out the limits to what can be learned from polling — especially today, when 91% of those contacted refuse to play ball with the pollsters. You should read the whole thing, but you might want to start with the grounds for his suspicion that the pollsters have been oversampling Democrats. He thinks that conservatives are right to be puzzled by the fact “that Mitt Romney is running ahead among independents in many polls but trails overall.” As he observes,

This can only happen if Democrats have a big lead in party identification, as they did in 2008. In the exit poll then, 39 percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats and 32 percent as Republicans.

In contrast, exit polls showed an even break on party identification in 2004 and 2010. But many September and some earlier polls showed Democrats with an even bigger party identification lead than four years before.

That seems implausible. Party identification does change over time, as exit polls indicate. But it usually shifts gradually rather than suddenly, as current polls suggest.

Michael finds the supposed decisive Democratic advantage in party identification hard to square with the fact that “many states with party registration have shown big drops in registered Democrats since” 2008. And he notes that “pollster Scott Rasmussen, who weights his robocall results by party identification, adjusted monthly, has shown a much closer race than most pollsters who leave party identification numbers unweighted. So has the Susquehanna poll in Pennsylvania.”

Rasmussen, who pays very close attention to party affiliation, suspects that the Democrats right now may have something on the order of a three point advantage. In his opinion, Romney is slightly behind in the Presidential race but within easy striking distance, and, in an interview with Byron York, he points to the fact that “in the last three elections,  . . . the polls moved against the incumbent party in the final weeks of the race.”

What Rasmussen does not say but could have said is that this happened big-time in 1980 — the last time that a Democratic incumbent was up for re-election at a time of great economic distress. I have long argued that in October a great many Americans who voted for Obama in 2008 would come around to the view that the country cannot stomach four more years of economic stagnation. To this one can add the unpopularity of Obamacare.

Of course, Mitt Romney could throw it all away. If, on Wednesday, he comes across as a weak, vacillating, apolitical or supra-political technocrat — and that is his default position as an MBA, a turn-around artist, and a Massachusetts Republican — he will lose. If, on the other hand, he presents himself as a man of principle who is capable of leading us out of the mess we are in, then he will win.

For what it is worth, I believe that Mitt Romney has learned a thing or two in the last couple of years, and I do not think that, on Wednesday night, he will revert to his default position. When he added Paul Ryan to the ticket, he quite deliberately drew a line in the sand. All that he has to do if he is to attract those who are unsatisfied with Obama but not yet sure that they are ready to roll the dice and vote for a comparative unknown is to demonstrate once again the firmness, principle, courage, and strength he evidenced when he chose Ryan.

Manipulation is sometimes for short periods effective in politics. In the long run, however, it is persuasion that matters. To win, one must crystallize public opinion by stating in a forthright manner what everyone knows but no one has thus far clearly enough said. In our current situation, one must draw attention to the fact that the tinpot emperor in Washington has no clothes or, to be more precise, that the chair reserved for the President of the United States has been empty for some time. If Romney does so with aplomb and if he indicates the direction in which he will take the country, Barack Obama’s support will plunge. On Wednesday night, one of the two contenders will emerge looking like an empty suit.

Electoral campaigns have an educational function. At their best, they clarify what is at stake and engage the citizens in public deliberation concerning what Aristotle calls the advantageous, the just, and the good. Unfortunately, however, the central importance of public sentiment is a truth all too often forgotten by the cynical managerial professionals who run political campaigns.

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  1. BD

    “Democrat Martha Coakley, buoyed by her durable statewide popularity, enjoys a solid, 15-percentage-point lead over Republican rival Scott Brown as the race for US Senate enters the homestretch, according to a new Boston Globe poll of likely voters.”

  2. Sabrdance

    The more I read about how polling operations work, the more horrified I am by them.

    Barone is describing a stratified sample (land-line users and cell-phone users).  Stratified samples have to be weighted or else they are useless, but last week the National Journal had in a bunch of pollsters claiming they don’t weight their polls.  Now I’m generally happy to believe that what they mean is “they don’t weight by party ID” but if Barone is right, it turns out they do weight by party ID -because it is correlated with cell phone usage.

    But  I also read a description of a polling operation which isn’t even a stratified sample.  It was a quota sample.  Call 100 white people, then 100 black people, then 100 asian people, then 100 cell phone users, et cetera.  Get a 101st white person, say thank you and hang up.  Quota samples have terrible statistical properties, which is why you don’t use them unless you have no budget.

    Our polling is two steps removed from asking college sophomores who’s going to win the election!  This is terrible procedure for research.

  3. concerned citizen
    Paul A. Rahe: 

    Of course, Mitt Romney could throw it all away. If, on Wednesday, he comes across as a weak, vacillating, apolitical or supra-political technocrat — and that is his default position as an MBA, a turn-around artist, and a Massachusetts Republican — he will lose. If, on the other hand, he presents himself as a man of principle who is capable of leading us out of the mess we are in, then he will win.

    For what it is worth, I believe that Mitt Romney has learned a thing or two in the last couple of years, and I do not think that, on Wednesday night, he will revert to his default position. 

    If Chris Christie knows what he’s talking about, then I think you are probably right.   It sounds like Mitt is ready to RUMBLE!

  4. DocJay

    Romney firmly believes he will win the debates, most importantly the first one.   Romney is not going to go fully negative, as has Obama has, unless he ties or loses the first debate.    Let us hope he is correct in his optimism.  

  5. Joseph Eagar

    I just have to say, I don’t believe the voters respond to principle.  That was a fantasy born in the Goldwater days.  I’m not sure what they do respond to, but it doesn’t seem to be that.

  6. Kervinlee

    The polls say Obama’s ahead but that makes no sense to me from what I see anecdotally. Here in the S.F. bay area, one hardly sees any Obama ’12 bumper stickers. Very few compared with ’08. What’s that about? I’ve actually seen a couple of Romney/Ryan stickers lately which around here might even be considered a provocative act. My liberal/dem friends don’t boast about anything Obama’s accomplished, in fact they tend toward an uncomfortable silence at the mention of his name. Also, look at the reader comments section of any story involving Obama on the SF Chronicle’s website – it seems most of the comments are certainly unhappy or disappointed if not openly hostile to the guy. The Chronicle is about a liberal a rag as they come, and Obama has not sold these people. The feeling I get is a sense of betrayal.

    The polls worry me, too, especially the way they’re spun by the Ministry of Information press (hat tip VDH), but I think Dr. Rahe is right, Obama could very well lose this thing in a spectacular manner.

  7. Douglas
    DocJay: Romney firmly believes he will win the debates, most importantly the first one.   Romney is not going to go fully negative, as has Obama has, unless he ties or loses the first debate.    Let us hope he is correct in his optimism.   · 50 minutes ago

    But I WANT him to go negative. Negative works, proven time after time after time again. And there’s not one thing wrong with negative if the accusations are true. And as much problem as I’ve had with Romney’s flip-flops on issues, nothing he’s campaigning on is a lie.

  8. Scarlet Pimpernel

    Two things.  If the Progressive world is indeed cracking up (as I hope it is, although that does present us with a major challenge, and I worry that, partly thanks to Progressives, Americans are not as up to the challenge as we used to be), its tools start to fail.  The collapse of polling as we have known it could be one symptom of that.

    If done prudently, Romney would probably be well served to pull at Newt.  Attacking the questions, but doing so with perhaps more subtlety than Newt did in the GOP debates, would probably be a winner.  Such attacks would be followed by Mitt talking directly into the camera about what truly is important in this election.

    That, of course, would further anger the establishment press–another Progressive institution that is failing.

  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Kervinlee: The polls say Obama’s ahead but that makes no sense to me from what I see anecdotally. Here in the S.F. bay area, one hardly sees any Obama ’12 bumper stickers. Very few compared with ’08. What’s that about? I’ve actually seen a couple of Romney/Ryan stickers lately which around here might even be considered a provocative act. My liberal/dem friends don’t boast about anything Obama’s accomplished, in fact they tend toward an uncomfortable silence at the mention of his name. Also, look at the reader comments section of any story involving Obama on the SF Chronicle’s website – it seems most of the comments are certainly unhappy or disappointed if not openly hostile to the guy. The Chronicle is about a liberal a rag as they come, and Obama has not sold these people. The feeling I get is a sense of betrayal.· 29 minutes ago

    Edited 27 minutes ago

    What you say about San Francisco is telling.

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Scarlet Pimpernel: Two things.  If the Progressive world is indeed cracking up (as I hope it is, although that does present us with a major challenge, and I worry that, partly thanks to Progressives, Americans are not as up to the challenge as we used to be), its tools start to fail.  The collapse of polling as we have known it could be one symptom of that.

    If done prudently, Romney would probably be well served to pull at Newt.  Attacking the questions, but doing so with perhaps more subtlety than Newt did in the GOP debates, would probably be a winner.  Such attacks would be followed by Mitt talking directly into the camera about what truly is important in this election.

    That, of course, would further anger the establishment press–another Progressive institution that is failing. · 5 minutes ago

    I agree with this entirely and have made the same suggestion in an earlier post. The mainstream press is hated. Taking them on will leave Obama on the sidelines looking weak. Gingrich showed how it can be done. My view is that Romney should disembowel the moderate when asked about contraception. “Unemployment is high and persistent, ad you ask about . . .?”

  11. Scarlet Pimpernel

    Yesterday at Synagogue I was surprised to learn (second hand) that one of my fellow congregants said she simply could not vote for Obama this time.  This was a surprise because the voter in question is reliably liberal. I recall her being furious at Scott Walker during the Wisconsin dust-up.

  12. DocJay
    Douglas

    DocJay: Romney firmly believes he will win the debates, most importantly the first one.   Romney is not going to go fully negative, as has Obama has, unless he ties or loses the first debate.    Let us hope he is correct in his optimism.   · 50 minutes ago

    But I WANT him to go negative. Negative works, proven time after time after time again. And there’s not one thing wrong with negative if the accusations are true. And as much problem as I’ve had with Romney’s flip-flops on issues, nothing he’s campaigning on is a lie. · 24 minutes ago

    I’d like to see Obama with significant negative ads directed at him  also.  

  13. jt
    Kervinlee: …Here in the S.F. bay area, one hardly sees any Obama ’12 bumper stickers. Very few compared with ’08. …My liberal/dem friends don’t boast about anything Obama’s accomplished, in fact they tend toward an uncomfortable silence at the mention of his name. Also, look at the reader comments section of any story involving Obama on the SF Chronicle’s website – it seems most of the comments are certainly unhappy or disappointed if not openly hostile to the guy.

    In the SF bay area some people are criticizing him from the left, calling this “Bush’s third term”.  They won’t vote for Romney but they may stay home or vote for the Green, though probably not enough to make the state competitive.

  14. Kervinlee
    jt

    Kervinlee: …Here in the S.F. bay area, one hardly sees any Obama ’12 bumper stickers. Very few compared with ’08. …My liberal/dem friends don’t boast about anything Obama’s accomplished, in fact they tend toward an uncomfortable silence at the mention of his name. Also, look at the reader comments section of any story involving Obama on the SF Chronicle’s website – it seems most of the comments are certainly unhappy or disappointed if not openly hostile to the guy.

    In the SF bay area some people are criticizing him from the left, calling this “Bush’s third term”.  They won’t vote for Romney but they may stay home or vote for the Green, though probably not enough to make the state competitive. · 6 minutes ago

    Edited 5 minutes ago

    Yes, I think that’s right. Dissolution with Obama does not a Romney voter make. Here especially, perhaps.

  15. Indaba
    Joseph Eagar: I just have to say, I don’t believe the voters respond to principle.  That was a fantasy born in the Goldwater days.  I’m not sure what they do respond to, but it doesn’t seem to be that. · 2 hours ago

    Apologies. Being an election bore, but Stephen Harper won by attacking the opposition leader at a highly personal level. He won a majority. Attack works.

  16. Charles Mark

    Deficit,Children,Grandchildren…repeat…

  17. tabula rasa

    Thanks, Dr. Rahe; once again, I’ve been talked off my window ledge–I’ve almost worn out the paint it.  I’m back in at my computer. [Note:  Even if I jump, it's only a 12-15 foot drop: this election is important, but not that important].

  18. Viator

    Democrat voter registration down, Democrat poll weight up. You judge.

    “Voter registration in the Buckeye State is down by 490,000 people from four years ago. Of that reduction, 44 percent is in Cleveland and surrounding Cuyahoga County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one.

    “I think what we’re seeing is a lot of spin and hype on the part of the Obama campaign to try to make it appear that they’re going to cruise to victory in Ohio,” Cuyahoga County Republican Chairman Rob Frost said. “It’s not just Cuyahoga County. Nearly 350,000 of those voters are the decrease in the rolls in the three largest counties, Cuyahoga, Hamilton and Franklin.

    Frost points out that those three counties all contain urban centers, where the largest Democrat vote traditionally has been.

    Ohio is not alone. An August study by the left-leaning think tank Third Way showed that the Democratic voter registration decline in eight key swing states outnumbered the Republican decline by a 10-to-one ratio. In Florida, Democratic registration is down 4.9 percent, in Iowa down 9.5 percent. And in New Hampshire, it’s down down 19.7 percent.”

  19. Doc Stephens

    Two points 1) the Sunday morning shows were horrible, and 2) Romney is doing well, and trending up, with the independents in polls in the eleven swing states.

    On September 7, following the conventions, Rasmussen had Obama up 42% to 38% among independents in his swingstate daily tracking poll.  It has completely flipped and as of yesterday, Romney leads 43% to 38%.  Furthermore, even Rasmusen oversamples Democrats in this particular poll.  This is not a fluke, but a steady trend since the conventions.  Romney caught Obama among independents on about 9/14 and then went ahead for good on 9/23 where he has remained since. 

    Overall, Rasmussen has them even in the swing states, but with oversampled Democrats. The average margin over the last three weeks is less than half a point. 

    I might add that Romney is doing just fine among women voters in the swing states over the same period, since the conventions.  As of yesterday, he was up three 47% to 44%, but this has lots of variability from day to day. 

  20. Barbara Kidder
    Joseph Eagar: I just have to say, I don’t believe the voters respond to principle.  That was a fantasy born in the Goldwater days.  I’m not sure what they do respond to, but it doesn’t seem to be that. · 2 hours ago

    Sadly, I have to agree with you.

    Those of you who work with thoughtful, educated folk are, I’m sure, hearing a lot of disillusionment with Obama.

    However, there is a mass of humanity out there who could not tell you the difference between the two candidates if their life depended on it!

    Then there’s the voter fraud factor…