I’ll be doing much shorter posts for the next several days as I begin a new semester of teaching, as well as taking on additional duties as departmental chair. Once the new schedule settles down, I’ll try to resume the more in-depth blogging to which you’ve become accustomed.
In that vein, let me note first that my colleague Bert Johnson and I have a new Professor Pundits video up here. As always, we invite your comments in response. We will be accelerating the pace of these as the campaign heats up.
Speaking of heating up: the initial post-convention tracking polls are picking up what may be a post-convention polling bounce for Obama. The seven-day Gallup tracking poll, as of Sept. 7, has Obama up, 49-45%, over Romney, compared to his 47%-46% lead prior to the convention. Of course, some of Gallup’s tracking survey was in the field during the convention, so conceivably the full bounce is yet to occur. Rasmussen shows an identical 49%-45% result in its three-day tracking poll, which is the President’s largest lead in the Rasmussen poll since March 17th. In the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll of polls, Obama has regained the lead by a narrow 1.8% margin, 49%-47.2%, which is almost the mirror opposite of where the RCP polls stood heading into the Democratic convention. The Pollster.com aggregate poll, which is designed to react a bit more slowly to recent polls, shows Obama’s polling lead at .5% (46.7%-46.2%), virtually unchanged since before the convention. Keeping in mind that, as I discussed in the video with Bert, it is tricky to separate out the independent impact of a convention-induced bump from other factors that may affect the two candidates’ polls, it doesn’t appear as yet that Obama received much more of a convention bump than did Romney. If so, this is consistent with my prediction in my Economist post that both candidates were likely to get smaller bumps than the 5% average candidates have gained in previous years.
One factor that may affect the size of the Obama bounce is the recent unemployment numbers, which came out on Friday and once again showed an economy that continues to stagnate. Although unemployment ticked down to 8.1% from 8.3%, that was largely because more Americans have dropped out of the workforce and have given up looking for jobs. Not surprisingly, in his post-convention campaign swing through Florida, Obama sought to change the media narrative from the jobs report to a debate over Medicare. This is where campaign strategies come into play. When I give my election talks touting the ability of some political science forecast models to predict, as early as Labor Day, the candidates’ share of the two-party popular vote, invariably someone accuses me of suggesting that “campaigns don’t matter.” But that’s not my claim. Campaigns do matter. Candidates use them to construct a narrative about the fundamentals, particularly the state of the economy, that influence how voters decide. What I found most interesting about Obama’s convention speech is how little of it focused on his administration’s record on jobs or health care. Instead, he seemed almost to position himself as a challenger, emphasizing the changes he would bring if elected president, and contrasting his values with those of Romney and the Republican Party which he holds responsible for the state of the economy today. This is the campaign strategy one uses if the fundamentals – in this case the economy – don’t necessarily work in your favor. You either try to recast those fundamentals in a way that is more favorable to your candidacy – or you try to switch the topic to one where you have a polling advantage over your opponent. Obama clearly thinks that positioning himself as the protector of entitlement programs – particularly Medicare – is a winning issue, especially in Florida. The idea here is to get Romney to debate him on ground that Obama feels is more favorable to his case for reelection. It remains to be seen whether Romney will take the bait. But it is a reminder that campaigns do matter: they are a struggle to define which issues are important, and why, and to whom. Those dueling narratives, however, do not impact all voters equally; typically the less-informed voters are more susceptible to campaign frames – but they are also less likely to tune into the campaign. Our forecast models are based in part on the premise that candidates choose the “right” strategy given the electoral context. But what is the right strategy for Obama, and for Romney? That’s the question both campaigns must answer. We will see what they decide in the next few weeks.