Who will win the popular vote? The polls speak one last time

Almost all the penultimate tracking results for the national polls are in, and they provide a rosy picture for Obama, and a bleak one for McCain.  For McCain diehards, however, there is still evidence that Obama has not yet clinched the deal.

First, the numbers (Obama first):

Gallup 53-42  Obama +11.  5% undecided (With undecideds allocated:  55-44.)

Hotline 50-45.  Obama +5   5% undecided.

Rasmussen 52-46 Obama +6   2% not accounted for.

Battleground 50-44   Obama +6  6% undecided.

Reuters/Zogby  50.9-43.8  Obama  +7.1.   5% undecided.

IBD/TPP 46.7-44.6  Obama +2.1 8.7% undecided

Average Tracking Poll Results:  50.4-44.2.  Obama +6.2.  5.3% undecided.

There are several things to note here. First, there’s no evidence of a trend toward either candidate. Indeed, the race has remained remarkably stable since the end of the media fixation on the fiscal meltdown in early October.  Most notably, Obama has hovered at about or slightly above the 50% barrier since then, but can’t seem to break that magic barrier decisively (beyond the margin of error in these polls) without some help from a decision to allocate the undecideds. By far the greater variation in the last month has  been in McCain’s support, which today ranges from 42 to 46%.

Second, the number of undecideds is simply not dwindling; depending on the pollsters, it remains mostly between 4-6%.  It may be that a significant portion of them will not vote. In my view, however, those who do will break in greater numbers for McCain.  But note that even if he gets 5 out of every 6 undecideds (unlikely based on past history, although he’s doing that in the last week in Pennsylvania), it won’t put him over the top.  Most pollsters who are allocating the undecideds are either splitting them evenly or giving McCain a slight plurality.  This means to draw even in this race, McCain will have to sweep the undecideds and see some slippage in Obama’s support.  And most of the polls are showing that Obama’s supporters are more committed than are McCain’s.

Now, could these polls be wrong?  Obviously there will be some sampling error. The only factor that might lead these polls to be systematically wrong, however, would be if the Sally Field/Bradley effect is somehow in play here.  And there’s no way to foresee that.

But barring systematic error of this type, they all tell the same story: Obama will win the popular vote.  By how much depends on the undecideds.  But at this point the forecast models from August look like they have hit Obama’s final popular vote total squarely on the nose.  We will see if McCain closes the gap at all in the next 48 hours.

What about the state-level polling?  Believe it or not, the picture is slightly less bleak for McCain.  But it will take a closing surge of historic proportions for him to squeak out an electoral college victory.  Because the situation is more complicated with state-level polling, I’ll need some time to put it in summary fashion. That comes next.

(PS – I’ll update these figues when the ABC tracker comes in later today, but I don’t expect it to change the basic picture.)


  1. For what it’s worth, here’s what I’m hearing from a couple of “Republican strategists” involved in regional politics and state races.

    They are apoplectic about the media coverage, saying that the gloom-and-doom “McCain unlikely to win” narrative is reviving something they had hoped to have completely laid to rest by now, a conservative “meh, McCain’s not a real conservative anyway, so I’m not invested in his political fate” effect. They worry that in the absence of unpalatable Democratic candidates in states like Virginia (Mark Warner is pretty popular), Republicans may stay home. Not in huge numbers, they say, but “enough” for Obama to win what might have been far closer contests. They were absolutely delighted by Murtha’s sally in Pennsylvania (the bit about how his district is full of racists) because it countered precisely that quasi-apathy.

    They aren’t alleging a media bias, exactly. They are, however, enormously ticked off at having to work in this environment. (And already, I’m hearing arguments that McCain will do far better than the GOP candidate had any right to in the current climate).

    I’m not saying that you should absolutely trust this analysis — someday I’ll explain the complicated ‘trust matrix’ that any reporter has to bring to this sort of conversation — but it’s a data point.

    (Also: Remember that I’m at the White House, not covering a campaign, and am therefore not in the mix as much as my campaign colleagues.)

  2. Matt, are there any statistics that indicate what the stock market does after a Republican or Democratic victory?

    I remember 1992 when Clinton was elected, there was a big rally.

  3. Olivier – thanks for the additional information from your perch. It reminds me that I haven’t talked much about presidential coattails and down-ticket effects of turnout. Certainly, based on the forecast models, I think it’s reasonable to say that McCain has played a bad hand relatively well (although certainly not error free). But we’ll know better when the vote is in.

    Jack, you probably aren’t surprised to find out that people have studied this! And they find that bear markets tend to occur beginning after a new president takes office in the first year of the administration, and generally bottom out at about the time of the midterm election. Bull markets, in contrast, are more frequent in the run up to the presidential election.

    of course, these are relative frequencies – it doesn’t mean that Obama (or McCain) will have to deal with a falling stock market in his first two years in office. But if there is to be a downturn, that’s when historically it is most likely to happen.

    So expect Obama (or McCain) do be dealing with

  4. Thanks Mike. As always, it is dangerous to equate correlation with causation. It’s easy to identify patterns, more difficult to explain them. I’m sure there are economists out there who have studied these cyclical effects. But as my students know, I put very little stock in models that suggest presidents can control the business cycle so that upticks coincide with their impending reelection campaign. Indeed, I put very little stock in a president’s ability to influence the economy at all! See Bush, housing bubble.

  5. Mr. Goodman,

    There’s always the old adage, “It’s already in the price.”

    All it seems logical to suppose is that infrastructure-related stocks will be up, health care and industrials will be sideways, and old growth sectors like energy, financials and utilities will be down (by the amount the dividend tax rate rises).

    Sam Stovall of S&P, who used to write the Sector Watch column at Business Week, is the one with the numbers. He reminds us that the markets do historically fare better under Democrats than Republicans. (Markets under Democrats have averaged 10.7% growth, while under Republicans it’s now down to 6.4% — it was 7.6% until the meltdown came home to roost.)

    Intuition says that the causal arrow points two different directions. Republicans spark the binge, followed by the crash. Then the crashes elect the Democrats.

    In honor of Olivier Knox, above, here’s an excerpt from an AFP piece from the other day:

    “The market hates uncertainty,” noted [Owen] Fitzpatrick [of Deutsche Bank]. “Historically we have rallies post-election.”

    Al Goldman from Wachovia Securities agrees, noting this trend will likely occur after the weekend.

    “Look for some market hesitation Monday and Tuesday before the elections, but a rally after, no matter who wins,” he said.

    “The next market problem will be (after) two to four weeks when the president-elect starts to say what he really has in mind for 2009.”

    There’s also a commentary from May on Slate.com that made a few interesting observations:

    “Political market calls are conceived in sin, since most are based on the false premise that the stock market prefers Republicans to Democrats…. Those who, fearing higher taxes, sold stocks after Bill Clinton’s inaugural missed out on a great rally. And those who, anticipating lower taxes, plunged into the market in January 2001 entered what has been a lost decade for U.S. stocks; since 2000, the markets of countries like Brazil and China have lapped their American cousins.

    “Ultimately, megatrends far beyond the control of government—like the Internet or the growth of China—influence stocks more than small-bore policies. The Medicare prescription-drug benefit, passed in 2003, was seen as a huge boon to Big Pharma. But since the benefit was signed into law in December 2003, the Amex Pharmaceutical Index has woefully underperformed the S&P 500. “Pharma is in the midst of a bad research and development cycle, and Pfizer hasn’t had a major new drug,” said Les Funtleyder, health care strategist at Miller Tabak.

    “Even when they’re right, politically inspired stock recommendations are often right for the wrong reasons. Oil stocks have done well under the Bush-Cheney administration, as analysts suggested in 2000, but not because the former oilmen made good on campaign promises to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. Instead, ExxonMobil has soared because breakneck growth in China, tensions in the Middle East, the weak dollar, and speculators have pushed oil higher.”



  6. Marty’s comment is a reminder as well that we need to be careful when we talk about Republican and Democratic influences on the market (or the economy) – did the housing crash occur under a Republican president, or a Democratic Congress? As my students have heard again and again, we instinctively assign economic responsibility to the presidency, but in point of fact Congress has greater fiscal controls, and neither the president nor Congress can do much with monetary policy.

  7. Seeing these national polling numbers is striking. You never know how much to trust polls, but these figures suggest that poor turnout could lead undecided voters to overturn Obama’s positive margin. In most of these polls, Obama is ahead by exactly the same percentage as the amount of undecideds (or sometimes a little more). In other words, his lead falls within the scope of the margin of error.

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