Take a Deep Breath…

And exhale slowly. Do it again. Ok, everyone calm?  Several of you have emailed me re: the Drudge Report, or other sites, reporting the latest Gallup Poll indicating that the race at the national level is a statistical tie (Gallup has Obama up 49-47, with a 2% margin of error).  “Gallup Shock,” trumpets the Drudge headline. What’s going on?  Has the race tightened that much?  Not according to Nate Silver, who accuses Drudge of “cherry picking” which poll to report in order to reframe the campaign narrative (a tactic Silver knows well, as evidenced by his selective reporting on the debate results.)

For regular readers of this post (and for my students who heard me lecture on this today), this development isn’t necessarily unexpected. Recall my earlier post on Gallup’s continued reliance on samples of registered voters, as opposed to likely voters. Historically, most pollsters move toward samples of likely voters as Election Day draws near, for the simple reason that we want to sample people who are actually going to vote, rather than those who are simply registered to vote.  Gallup was the last of the pollsters doing daily tracking polls to make this switch, but they did so this last week.

Generally speaking, Obama does better among polls based on registered voters, but McCain does better among polls of likely voters. The reason is that typically Republicans turn out in a greater proportion to their registered numbers than do Democrats, so when pollsters switch to likely voters samples, they traditionally increase the weighting of Republicans.  This year, however, the heightened enthusiasm among voters, especially in the Democratic primary, coupled with a spike in voting registration totals, has led some pollsters to wonder whether the Democrats might in fact turn out in much higher numbers during this cycle.  Pollsters are thus left with a dilemma – do they use the traditional procedures that weight Republicans more heavily, or do they adjust their samples to account for what might be a different, more heavily Democratic turnout this year?  Rather than choose between the two options, Gallup decided to present both versions of likely voter samples. Under the traditional turnout model, McCain gets a bump, and the race is essentially tied at the national level.  But under the new likely voter model developed by Gallup, Obama is comfortably ahead by 6%, 51-45.

So, which is more accurate?  One way of finding out is to look at the other national tracking polls. Do they show a movement toward McCain?  Yes and no. Three of them show a slight movement toward McCain, but one (Zogby) shows Obama gaining a point and the other three show no movement.  Based on this, Silver concludes that there is no real trend toward McCain.

In truth, we simply can’t be sure for at least two reasons. First, and most important, no one really knows what the actual partisan distribution of likely voters is; given the unprecedented registration figures it’s not clear whether the traditional sampling strategies still hold in this election cycle. Second, if there is a movement toward McCain, we need more than two days to be sure that it is happening.  But neither can the possibility be dismissed.

Most importantly, to be significant, national trends must translate into gains at the state level, particularly in the battleground states. I don’t see any evidence that this is happening, although because state polls are conducted less frequently, national level trends typically take a couple days to show up at the state level.  So my advice is neither to overreact to these polls nor completely dismiss them. Anyone who tells you they know what is happening likely has a partisan axe to grind.  My instinct says this race hasn’t tightened, but I have absolutely no evidence to support this claim, and thus my assertion is no better than Silver’s or Drudge’s or any other pundit’s.  It is a guess, plain and simple, and should be treated as such.

For now, your best bet is to turn on the Red Sox game – they’ve come down from 7 runs to tie the game in the 8th inning.

Now this is something that should take your breath away.


  1. I am calm…go sox!! And sorry, but I just really wanted to cheer. Is there any reason republicans often turn out in a higher proportion?

  2. Matt, when you look at the graphs of the support of O and M on Real Clear Politics you can get two different types of displays. If you check states like Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia, you get a flat line over the history of the RCP average.

    But if you check Florida, N.H. or Colorado you get a much more dynamic slope for each of the two candidates.

    What does this till you about polarization or open mindedness or whatever about these two different types of states.


  3. If you saw the Al Smith Dinner lat night you saw a different McCain. That McCain could easily be ahead by 6 points on likeability alone.

  4. There’s a very good (and long) article in the NY Times magazine about Obama’s campaign in general and his attempts to reach out to lower-class white male voters. It covers the relevant election history very well and captures what I think is a little-covered but very interesting aspect of Obama’s campaign – the extent to which Obama is running his campaign in a manner that will maximize his power prospects once in government.

    Here’s a brief excerpt: (from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/19/magazine/19obama-t.html?pagewanted=2&bl&ei=5087&en=7349c3908c52867d&ex=1224388800 )

    “Mathematically, Obama can probably win the election without winning any of these states — or Nevada or Montana or any of the other conservative states where he has campaigned in the past several months. What he probably can’t do, if he doesn’t convert enough voters to throw at least a few traditionally red states into the blue column, is get beyond what he dismissively refers to as the “50-plus-1” governing model, the idea that a president need only represent 50 percent of the country (plus 1 additional vote) to command the office. From the start, Obama has aspired not simply to win but also to stand as a kind of generational break from the polarized era of the boomers, to become the first president in at least 20 years to claim anything more than the most fragile mandate for his agenda. Absent that, even if he wins, Obama could wake up on Nov. 5 as yet another president-elect of half the people, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an impassable cultural divide.”

    and a little later:

    “It is also true, however, that a series of circumstances beyond his control have conspired to make a truly national campaign more feasible for Obama than for any Democrat since Carter ran in the dark days after Watergate. First, of course, there is the national sense of despair over the Bush era, which has made the president more of a uniter than he ever intended and which has enabled Democrats to get a hearing in parts of the country where they were being run off the land 10 years ago. Then there’s the advent of the Internet as a veritable money vacuum, which has enabled Obama to raise more money than any Democrat in history (about $460 million, at last count), meaning he can afford to pour some resources into states he has only a remote chance of winning. Perhaps most important, though, Obama’s campaign has also been able to take advantage of a drawn-out Democratic primary campaign that came through all 50 states before it was over — a draining experience that nonetheless established networks of volunteers and newly registered Democratic voters in states that in any other year would have been overlooked. In three states — Texas, Indiana and North Carolina — more people voted in Democratic primaries this year than voted for Kerry on Election Day in 2004.”

    “For Obama’s political advisers, expanding the electoral map is not about making a philosophical statement; it is simply a strategic imperative. Presidential campaigns, after all, are about getting to 270 — the minimum number of electoral votes needed to win. In relying on the same 20 or so winnable states over the past few elections, Democratic nominees have given themselves almost no margin for error. By contrast, Obama’s campaign, in addition to fighting for the usual complement of about a dozen swing states, has shifted considerable resources into a group of states — the list has, at one time or another, included Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Georgia — that haven’t been strongly contested for at least three elections, if not longer. (Alaska was on the list, too, until McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.) The idea here is that the more states you put in play, the more permutations there are that lead to victory.”

    So, clearly there is a practical advantage to running in many states that cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, I was reminded of one of the readings from your Presidency seminar in which the author compared the popular vote totals, composition of congress, and electoral vote margins of each president. The overall trend showed that the power of presidents, as judged by these statistics, had been declining in the modern era. A conscious effort by Obama to reverse this trend (and helped by external circumstances) may bode well for his power prospects, if he is elected.

  5. Conor, I disagree. I don’t think that Obama is making a conscious effort now to increase his power prospects when elected. Congress will have a large democratic majority whether or not Obama wins. It wouldn’t make sense for his campaign to attempt to increase his power prospects when elected if such actions did not simultaneously help his chances of getting elected. He has to get elected first. And if efforts to get elected simultaneously increase his power prospects when elected, then it is by coincidence, not a separate conscious effort.

    I would argue that the benefits of a national campaign are in fact practical benefits to his election prospects and the primary reason for running such a campaign. The Times article lists more than enough reasons why a national campaign helps his election prospects to make any alternative explanation unnecessary. The Obama campaign has said this is the kind of campaign they would run since early in the primaries. They said they were going to challenge McCain in traditionally Republican states and that this would improve his election prospects. Clinton’s campaign countered she would certainly win OH and this would win her the election. Running a national campaign is one of the major reasons he has so many resources in the first place. And I’ll still bet he doesn’t spend the few days prior to the election in GA or MT. He’ll spend it in the states crucial to his election.

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