WARNING: This post may be hazardous to members of the Media who are distorting the implications of recent polls in exchange for improved ratings.
Just a few months ago, as Clinton and Obama were locked in mortal combat, one heard over and over again in the Media that if Clinton won, the race with McCain was going to be incredibly close. This was a given. You could take it to the bank.
A funny thing happened on the way to the election. Have you noticed how often T.V. reporters, pundits, and newspaper people are now saying the following: In terms of the national polls, isn’t it surprising, amazing in fact, just how close the race is between Obama and McCain? Given all of the cards that Obama appears to hold–for example, that the Republicans have been in charge while the economy has tanked–he should have a double-digit lead. (Why wouldn’t this have applied to Hillary? Don’t ask.) The impression that is being fostered is that there must be something wrong with Obama and his campaign because he is not galloping ahead in the polls. But Obama is actually doing quite well at this stage in the game. Four quick points: 1) Obama is the new kid on the block and one would expect a certain degree of reticence about casting one’s lot with him this early in the election; 2) the contest with Hillary left a good deal of disinformation floating around about Obama, which will be addressed in the next few months; 3) Obama’s organization is going to register many new voters, who are of course not included in polls of currently registered voters; and 4) by historical standards Obama is in very good shape for a non-incumbent, both in terms of resources and the enthusiasm that he is generating.
While one should be skeptical about the predictive capacity of head to head polls at this stage of the campaign, especially national ones, in terms of the latter Obama is doing just fine, thank you. The recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll (July 18th-21st) has Obama 6% ahead of McCain, 47%-41%. RealClear Politics (July 25th) has him 4.8% ahead in its average of recent polls. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/polls/ Gallop daily tracking on July 25th has Obama with a 6% lead, and Rasmussen’s daily poll has him by 5%.
Perhaps most significantly, when third party candidates are factored in, as they were in the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, Obama turns out to be 13% ahead of McCain, 48% to 35% (with Nader at 5%, Barr at 2%, and a 4.4% margin of error). In a four way match up Obama’s share of the vote hardly changes (he moves up from 47% to 48%), while McCain drops (from 41% to 35%). Although the margin of error in the four way race is greater than in the two way race, the difference between Obama and McCain is significant, and outside of the margin of error. Notice that Obama retains support while McCain loses support.
It’s worth mentioning that half of the last ten elections have been won by less than 6%. Also, when third party candidates are a significant factor (1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, 2000), the margin of victory has been below 13% in every case. If Obama won by 13%, it would be a landslide, and the third highest popular vote total in the last ten elections. See Dave Leip’s Atlas U.S. Presidential Elections <http://uselectionatlas.org/>
We don’t know how accurate the current polls will be in predicting the winner in November. What we do know is that if one were to translate recent polls into election returns, Obama would win, and possibly in a landslide. But then again, national head to head polls are going to fluctuate, especially this far out and in the middle of the summer. One has to examine them more closely, for example, regarding enthusiasm of supporters, to catch what may be strengths and weaknesses that will translate into votes.
The Media should provide more historical perspective about the “unexpected” terribly close race between Obama and McCain. For example, it should tell the public that a 4% lead in the popular vote will almost certainly translate into a win in the electoral college. But then again, providing such information might just undermine ratings (and profits).
UPDATE: Readers may want to follow up on the poll question by taking a look at the comments of a respected political scientist, Larry Sabato, in The New York Observer, July 24th. “Sabato: Obama’s ‘Risky’ Trip Has a Big Payoff” http://www.observer.com/2008/politics/obamas-risky-trip-has-paid-big-time-polls#comment-897630
UPDATE: July 27. I don’t believe that McCain has the electoral college sewn up, as comments to this posting have suggested. The polls are too fluid and the general trends still favor Obama. (It’s the economy….) The Obama people have a good plan and an organization to carry it out.