Numbers all over the map
- Last Updated: 11:32 PM, September 23, 2012
- Posted: 10:43 PM, September 23, 2012
Have you noticed that the political polls have been all over the map lately? Is President Obama up 8 in Virginia, or just 1? Is Mitt Romney up 6 in North Carolina, or is Obama up 4? How about nationwide? Gallup and Rasmussen show a tie, but Pew shows Obama up 8. And so and so on.
What the heck is going on?
For starters, remember what polls are and what they’re not. They are a snapshot in time — but not a good gauge on voter decision-making. In fact, they’re a terrible way to conceive of the thought process that the average swing voter goes through to make his choice.
Many a voter is truly undecided, and will in fact change his mind before Election Day — but may still tell a pollster, “I’m for Obama!” simply because he enjoyed Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.
That leads to the second point: It has been only two weeks since the DNC ended, which means Obama is still enjoying a bounce in the polls. And that bounce can be higher or lower, depending on how tightly a pollster screens likely voters (or polls of adults who are deemed likely to vote by the pollster).
Think of it this way. You consider yourself a Democrat but normally don’t vote nor pay much attention to politics. But the convention excited you and made you feel good about politics for the first time in a long time. You get a call from a pollster whose only question to screen for likely voters is, “Are you certain to vote?”
Still riding high from the DNC, you answer, “Absolutely!” And thus you are included in the poll.
But if the pollster were to ask other questions like, “How often have you voted in the past?” Or, “How much attention were you paying prior to the conventions?” You’d answer, “Rarely” and “Not Much” — meaning you would probably get screened out of that sample.
That is one way to explain the wide variation in the poll — how many Democrats (or Republicans) are included versus how many are screened out.
This type of nuts and bolts stuff usually doesn’t matter when we get close to Election Day, as the polls begin to converge. But right now, we are seeing a surge in Democratic enthusiasm, and polls that do a poor job of differentiating enthusiastic non-voters from enthusiastic voters are going to overestimate Obama’s margin.
But there is a broader point to bear in mind: It’s only September.
For political junkies, this statement makes little sense. They’ve been paying close attention to the campaign for months now, and are giddy over the fact that Election Day is quickly approaching.
But political junkies don’t swing elections. In fact, something like 25 percent of voters make their voting decisions after September, and anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent will make their final choice in the last week.
This is why the polls have often swung wildly in the final weeks of a campaign. It’s how “Dewey defeated Truman” in 1948. It’s how a blowout Richard Nixon victory in 1968 turned into a squeaker. It’s how Gerald Ford closed a 10-point gap and actually had a lead in the final Gallup poll in 1976.
It’s how a toss-up race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan finished with a GOP blowout in 1980. It’s how Bill Clinton went from being up 9 in mid-September, 1992 to a tie with George H.W. Bush by the end of October.
It’s how George W. Bush went from being 10 points down in September 2000 to the 43rd president in January 2001. And it’s how the very same Bush “blew” the 11-point lead he enjoyed in late September 2004, defeating John Kerry by just 2 points.
In other words, September polls are extremely volatile. And this year’s volatility is compounded by the late date of the Democratic National Convention. It was, in fact, the latest party convention in US history.
And when the polls are bouncing around a lot, the chances are much greater that they will disagree with one another — which is exactly what we’re seeing right now.
The best way to view this presidential campaign is an NFL divisional grudge match, Steelers-Ravens or Giants-Cowboys. Both sides know each other’s strengths and weaknesses extremely well, so you know the game is going to be close. Sure, one side just scored on a big play, but we’re only halfway through the 3rd quarter, and the other side is due to strike back any moment.
As always, the game will come down to some fantastic interception by Troy Polamalu or an unbelievable completion by Eli Manning to Victor Cruz.
So sit tight, politics fans: There’s plenty more to come.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for The Weekly Standard and the author of “Spoiled Rotten,” a critical history of the Democratic Party.Follow @NYPostOpinion