No Need to Panic

Because of their typical partisan slant and intolerance for opposing viewpoints, political blogs are wonderful places for like-minded people to engage in a form of internet devotional services.  Obama and McCain supporters can get together in their own blogs, without worrying that their world view and political assumptions might be challenged, except by the occasional troll. Even here they can take collective pleasure by ganging up on the infidel and inflicting an online beating and virtual banishment. On the flip-side however, when political trends appear to be turning against one’s candidate, the online discussion among like-minded people can produce a type of virtual mass hysteria, as they talk themselves into believing that doom is just around the corner.  We are beginning to see the first indications of this on the comments sections in many pro-Obama sites, such as Five Thirty Eight, Huffington Post or the Daily Kos, in response to signs that the presidential race is tightening.  I have waited before commenting on the recent polling data so that the full impact of the last debate on the three-day tracking polls registers, and to be sure that the trend is real (at least as real as can be determined from polls in which the internals are often not released.)

Here’s what the five national tracking polls indicate has happened in the last week

Rasmussen had Obama’s largest lead at 8 points on Oct. 6 – it dropped to a low of 4 on Friday, but is up to 6% today.  One week ago, Obama led by 6%.  So, a drop of 2% (which is within the margin of error) in two weeks but no movement either way in the last week.

Hotline has Obama up by 7% as of yesterday, down from a 10% lead a week ago, so McCain gains 3%.

In Gallup’s expanded poll (the one most favorable to Obama), Obama’s lead has shrunk to 4% (it’s down to 2% in the “traditional” polling of likely voters) from a 10% (53-43) lead on Oct. 13. McCain gains 6%.

Battleground went from 53-40, Obama leading on Oct 13, to 49-45 yesterday a net gain for McCain of 9%.

The one counter-trend is IBD/TIPP.  They had it for Obama by 2% at 44.8-42.7 a week ago. Yesterday his lead had increase to more than 7%, 47.2-39.8.  So McCain loses 5%. However, they also show 13% of voters still undecided, almost twice what the other tracking polls indicate, so it’s hard to know what to make of their results.

Of course, each of these polls has a built-in house effect depending on partisan weighting, treatment of “leaners”,  number of undecideds, etc.  If we average them with other polls, using the RealClearPolitics trend line, we see that Obama has lost about 3% nationally in the last week.  On Oct. 14, Obama led in the RCP poll of polls, 50.2 to 42, a lead of 8%.  Today the lead has shrunk to 5%, 48.9 to 43.9.

So, what should we make of this?  In response to this apparent drop, partisan bloggers who are supporting Obama have advanced a number of largely inaccurate explanations in order to rally the troops. Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight suggests it is simply the case that McCain is solidifying his partisan base – that “red states” are becoming redder.  This may be part of the story, but it is not the whole story. The Reuters/Zogby poll, for example, shows that Obama’s lead among independents dropped from 16% to 8%.

More generally, Obama’s support according to the RCP average has dropped marginally by about 1.5%, while McCain has gained about 2%, so the change is combination of Obama losing some support and McCain gaining some.

Other Obama supporters argue that races always tighten in the last two weeks.  Again, this is not true.  I looked back at Gallup poll trial heat data, and it shows the presidential race tightening across the last two polling points in 2004, 2000, 1996, 1976, 1968, 1964, 1960 and 1952.  But in 1956, 1972, 1980, ’84, ’88 and 1992 the frontrunner maintained or increased his margin at the end of the campaign.

So, if the tightening numbers are not simply McCain solidifying his base, or the “natural” tightening of the race that occurs every four years, what is the explanation?  First (and not surprisingly to readers) there is no indication of a post-debate “bounce” for McCain – the race began tightening before that debate, although the debate did not halt the trend (at least not as of today). For that matter, neither is there evidence of the bounce predicted for Obama because he “won” the third debate according to the instapolling. I trust I need not elaborate at this point why we shouldn’t expect a debate bounce for either candidate.  Some partisan bloggers, like Silver, argued that Obama received a polling bounce after the second debate, but in fact his upward polling trend preceded that debate and was largely driven, in my view, by the continuing bad economic news.  In any case, there’s no evidence of debate bounce here.

Since I do not have access to the internals of all the polls, I can only speculate here, but I think that McCain’s gain is largely due to three factors:

  1. Most importantly, the spate of bad economic news has, temporarily, not dominated the news cycle to quite the degree that it had in the previous weeks.  The economic crisis is by no means resolved, but we are in something of a holding pattern.  The less frequently we see George Bush on television urging patience, the better for McCain.
  1. McCain has finally found a message, in the terms of an economic policy directed both toward middle-class homeowners and traditional Republican-oriented small business owners, which puts him on the “right” side of the economic crisis.  It is not that he has obtained the high ground here, but he at least has a message, rooted in a policy, to compete with Obama as an agent of change, rather than as part of the problem.
  1. McCain – and Palin – have dropped the “Obama hangs out with terrorists” sub theme on the stump and focused instead on the economy.   If you have watched their stump speeches the last week (and I have) you can see that they have both honed their message and that the audiences’ responses are much more enthusiastic.  There is a renewed vitality to their campaign stops as a result.

So, McCain has clearly made a slight gain – and I emphasize slight – in the last week, (although you wouldn’t know it if you listened to the weekend talk shows!)  Does this mean there is reason for Obama supporters to panic?  No.  Obama is still up in most polls by 4-5%, with only about 6-7% undecided voters left.  Even with his slight drop in support, Obama is still polling close to 50% in most national polls, and the Electoral College map is still heavily tilted toward him. Although we see McCain gaining ground in key battleground states (the latest polls in Florida, North Carolina and West Virginia all show movement toward McCain), these are states that Bush won in 2004 and that McCain still trails in (except for West Virginia). And because voters are polled much less frequently in these states, we can’t be sure how much the national trend reflects movements in the key battleground states where Obama is focusing his air and ground campaign, bolstered by a huge fundraising advantage.

My recommendation is that if you are an Obama supporter, rather than obsess over slight movements in the polls with your fellow Obamanauts, take some time away from the blogosphere today and instead go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. The fundamentals driving this race have not changed.  It’s still all about the economy and change. And that favors your guy.

By the way, the long awaited Powell endorsement of Obama that came through today will dominate the news cycle for 24 hours but likely will have no impact on the race. I’ve talked about the marginal value of endorsements before, but if you’d like, I can run the data for you again.  They just don’t matter all that much.  Had this been a national security year, it might have carried some weight, but Powell’s economic credentials are about as meaningful as mine.   Ignore the media hype.  It does nothing to alter the fundamentals driving this race.


  1. As hard as it is to realize, most Americans are not political junkies and do not pay all that much attention to the campaigns as many of us do.

    It is true that Obama has energized a segment of the population that has been on the sidelines for many decades, young people and some segments of the African American population, It is also true that George Bush and the war and now the economy have been very big issues, but having said that many ordinary voters really don’t pay close attention until about now.

    For many people, Obama is still much of an unknown. This race has been all about him from the day he entered it but really about his persona not really his policies. Now the very real problems of the economy and nascent recession are making people seriously ask if he has better answers than we have been getting recently. He may or may be found wanting.

    McCain cannot win this race, probably never could, but Obama can lose it. he is doing eveerything he can to not screw it up- so far with considerable success.

    Unlike most other races where the impact of government is usually remote and more directed to the other guy, millions of Americans are personally worried today. I know several friends who were going to retire at the end of this year but will be working now for the foreseeable future because their retirement plans have fallen 30- 40% since Labor Day.

    This is a very big deal to them and it is repeated millions of times over, in job losses, home foreclosures, very reduced job prospects for many of your students about to graduate.

    Clearly this very personal unease ( to put it mildly) favors change but it also cries out for a believable solution. I have not heard either candidate tell me anything concrete and believable to encourage me to place my future in their hands.

    My emphasis here is in “my future” because I think that this will be an election where people really vote their interests and concerns more than any I have ever seen. I finally understand my grandfather’s loyalty to the Democrat party because FDR touched him personally unlike any other politician. He made a personal difference to his well being. Few leaders are called upon to serve in such times -these two may very well be so called.

    For many of those reading this blog, this election is electrifying because all that Obama may mean for us- post racial etc- but this economic tsunami trumps that and he needs to be more than a smooth talking visionary. He needs to jump onto the tiger and manage it. Can he?

    Many people just don’t know and they may not be able to take that chance when they actually have their own dog in the fight.

    That is what makes many undecided voters still undecided and perhaps McCain can tap into that- perhaps he is.

  2. One more thought.

    Be careful what you wish for because you may get it.

    The winner of this race will be faced with problems that may not be solvable in an election cycle. We Americans ( and the rest of the worlda) took decades to get into this mess and it will take time to get out of it but we will expect the new leader to get it done in the first 100 days. That is not what will happen. If Obama wins and then does not bring fundamental change to Washington- or MCCain for that matter- the public will be very unforgiving.

  3. “By the way, the long awaited Powell endorsement of Obama that came through today will dominate the news cycle for 24 hours but likely will have no impact on the race.”

    I’m going to sound like a broken record here, I know. I’m sorry.

    But ask yourself this question: Is 48-72 hours (the lead-up, the day of, the day after) of media coverage amplifying “Colin Powell endorsed Obama” better or worse for Obama than a similar amount of discussion of ACORN/voter registration fraud (or “fraud,” take your pick)?

    In other words, does the Powell endorsement push objectively bad news for Obama from the front page? As I have said before and doubtless will say again: It’s not just about the coverage you get, it’s about the coverage you don’t get. There’s a profound difference between arguing that Powell’s endorsement “does nothing to alter the fundamentals driving this race” (I agree) and saying that his endorsement has “no impact” (I disagree strongly).

    If you were running a campaign, would you dismiss endorsements like this? I say you should not. Sure, there’s no social science evidence that endorsements are decisive — no-one will tell a pollster “I voted for Obama because Colin Powell endorsed him.”

    But like the VP selection, and whom you choose as surrogates, it’s all about the campaign’s broader message to voters. No-one will tell a pollster on November 4 that they voted for Obama because they didn’t like what McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm said about the country being full of whiners who aren’t really facing tough economic times. Right? But those who say that they voted for Obama because “I think he’d be better at handling the economy” are actually telling you “I’ve weighed the information on this subject that I have received from both campaigns and I have reached this conclusion.” And that’s where surrogates and endorsements (and missteps like Gramm’s) matter. Powell, by himself, may not win over anyone. But he’s part of a broader message from the Obama campaign.

    Also, the “economic credentials” aren’t the only ones in play here. Powell did significant damage to his personal image (at least with the American Left) with the pre-Iraq-war presentation he gave to the UN Security Council. But he retains the respect of a lot of people, including a lot of independent voters. At a time when McCain’s below-the-radar campaing is incredibly aggressive against Obama (those robo-calls, some regional/local GOP campaign literature), implying at every turn that he’s not just not the best choice but actually dangerous to the country’s future, Powell provides a counter message.

  4. I think you underestimate Powell’s endorsement a little. Sure, it won’t change anybody’s vote, but it will dominate news coverage for a day or so. And with only two weeks left in the race, anything that’s not great for McCain that appears on the teevee benefits Obama (including 30 minute infomercials). By reducing McCain’s opportunity to change the direction of the race, the Powell endorsement most certainly does help Obama.

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