Why people should be worried about the polls

(NOTE FROM JOHN: Rob’s post is long. Please take 5 minutes and read it. It’s quite possibly the best thing we’ve ever published in four years of running this blog. I’ve been wanting Rob to write for us (again) for a long while (he wrote a bit at the beginning, then got a real job). Rob used to be, arguably, the Republicans’ top Internet political strategist until he defected around the year 2000. Rob’s encyclopedic knowledge of politics, of dates and figures, of polls and data and electoral history, is downright scary. Read this post, then share it with someone. Thanks, JOHN)

Last week Pew Research released their latest poll on the Presidential election. It has the horse race question at 46-43 for Obama – within margin of error. At this point in 2004, Kerry led Bush 47-45, in 1992 Clinton led Bush 57-37.

The Pew poll shows the following:

  • Three weeks ago Obama had a statistically significant 8 point lead. Today he’s got a 3 point lead with a 2.5% margin of error. The race is effectively a tie.
  • McCain has solidified his base and now gets 87% of Republicans to Obama’s 82% of Democrats. There has been no shift in Clinton supporters since June – 72% will vote for Obama, 18% of McCain with 10% undecided. Only 6% of Republican primary voters who supported other candidates indicate they will vote for Obama.
  • McCain is now over 50% with white voters, 51% overall, leads Obama in all groups other than college graduates where they are tied, and McCain is now at 60% with white voters in the south, a 7 point move in three weeks. These numbers all mirror the same vote breakdown in 2000 and 2004. The only group that has flipped since 2004 is 18-29 where Obama leads with 51% – a 13 point shift since 2000.
  • McCain’s support among evangelical voters has moved up 7 points since June.
  • In a series of either/or trait questions, voters believe McCain is personally qualified to be president (54-27), shows good judgment in a crisis, (51-36), and is willing to take a stand even if it’s unpopular (49-38). Obama leads on having new ideas (69-17), connects well with people (57-30), and, interestingly, shares my values (47-39).
  • When supporters of a candidate were asked to find something they like most about the opponent, 53% of McCain supporters said nothing at all, compared to 34% of Obama supporters. 37% of Obama supporters said McCain’s personal abilities and experiences were what they liked most about McCain, only 11% of McCain supporters said the same about Obama.
  • More disturbingly for Obama, when asked what they liked most about the candidates, 40% noted McCain’s personal abilities and experience. The number one answer on Obama? Nothing – 28% – a volunteered answer, not an option provided by the pollster but recorded only if volunteered by the voter. Obama’s position on economic issues was second at 24%.
  • When asked what troubled them most about the candidates, voters said for McCain it was his position on economic issues (26%) and his position on foreign policy issues (25%). For Obama, it was his personal abilities and experience (33%)
  • Obama has a higher level of strong support than McCain. 27% of voters strongly support Obama to 17% for McCain.
  • One in three voters may change their mind between now and election day – 46% of independent voters indicate they may switch.
  • Voters are paying closer attention to the election. Comparing the same timeframe, August, attention is at levels not seen since 1992.

While some here think everything is going just fine, and that Obama has a secret plan lying in wait, I ask you to think back a year ago. Imagine if someone had told you that the most charismatic Democratic speaker in a decade would be in a dead-heat with a Republican has-been corrupt waffler – you would have laughed in their face. After eight years of George Bush? No way, people are fed up – that’ll never happen.

Well, that’s the reality today. This race is a dead heat and is up for grabs both in the national polls as well as in key states like Ohio, Florida, Missouri, etc. Face reality folks – something isn’t working.

While some say ignore the polls at this stage, you can’t really do that. To be sure, some polls are worth looking at and some are worth ignoring. How do you tell the difference?

Let’s talk about polling methodology. There are two different ways to poll – registered voters and likely voters. At this stage, I ignore likely voter polls. Why? Well after a primary full of polling errors, I’m skeptical that anyone at this stage in the game can really determine who a likely voter is. (Read more about likely voter methodology on my prior post.)

Having said that, we do have a more accurate indicator – the registered voter poll. In order to be able to vote in an election, you have to be registered. Registered voters are the total universe of possible voters in November. Now Obama’s campaign will tell you that they are registering tons of new voters. That’s great, but those people are already showing up in registered voter polls. One of the first questions asked by the pollster is usually “are you registered to vote?” – all the people Obama has registered will answer that question yes and will be included in the current poll results.

Now some have raised the question of whether mobile-phone only households – generally younger and possibly new voters – are being missed by the polls. Sorry to burst the bubble folks, but the good polling firms have already addressed this question and resolved it. Polling panels are now comprised of phone interviews (including mobile phones) as well as online polling. The Pew poll specifically addresses this issue on page 11 of this PDF file – page 10 of the report. A well executed registered voter poll at this point in the race is a relevant barometer of where the country is today.

So then what does the Pew poll say about where we are and what to do moving ahead? What is says is that the demographic breakdown of the 2008 vote looks an awful lot like 2004, and 2000. You can draw from that, and other public polls, that the same states in play in 2004 will likely be in play in 2008, and that the races in those states are highly competitive. The Pew poll says that voters are concerned about McCain’s stand on the economy and on foreign policy (i.e., Iraq), but that they aren’t yet sold on Barack Obama and question his experience. They like Obama’s positions on the economy, but they aren’t there yet.

Not all is lost folks, Obama has time and money to make a shift. But if you thought that somehow this year was going to be different – something would change and somehow the American electorate would look completely different this year than any other year, the numbers today just don’t show that. This isn’t a transformative election, it’s another hardscrabble, claw out each and every vote, election. To win that kind of election, you need to fight for every vote and fight hard. That’s why you hear the concern you hear from Josh Marshall, John, Joe, etc. And it’s backed up by years of experience watching the Republicans make Democrats look weak – Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry. That line of attack works when not countered and we were defeated. None of us want that in 2008.

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