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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