Pre-election polling: a heap of broken images

Here we are, a few days before the election, and the polls are all over the place.  Analysts are struggling to read many different blends of tea leaves.  It’s not surprising that the final wave of data before a tight election would include some confusing signals.  Here are a few factors to keep in mind:

1. The composition of the electorate.  One of the big stories during this election season has been the weighting of poll samples, which are generally tilted to strongly favor Democrats.  Samples of D+8 and higher have been common, especially since the Obama post-convention “bump” began to fade.  Suspicions linger that the Democrat sample has been deliberately inflated to produce less discouraging headlines for the President’s supporters, who would otherwise grow dispirited from weeks of polls anticipating a Romney win.

To be fair, predicting the true partisan composition of the electorate is difficult.  A lot of people register as “independent” when they really aren’t.  Also, not every registered Democrat will vote for Obama, nor will every registered Republican vote for Romney.  Crossover votes are very difficult to anticipate in pre-election polling.

Some pollsters try to skew their surveys to match 2008 voter turnout models.  A few lean more towards the 2010 electorate, although it can be reasonably suggested that off-year elections tend to produce different turnout than presidential years.  It seems rather unlikely that Democrats are more numerous and energetic than they were in 2008, and particularly unlikely that Republicans are less so.  For example, a much-discussed CBS News / New York Times / Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday asserted that Republican turnout in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, and Virginia would be lower than it was in 2008.  It’s not impossible, but it seems both improbable and contrary to reports of increased Republican turnout for early voting.  In fact, the big story out of Florida has been the remarkable collapse of Obama’s 2008 early voting lead – a loss of almost 70 percent of the lead he held over John McCain.

Likewise, a PPP poll out today thinks Obama will take Ohio by five points, because he’ll get 6 percent more Democrats than he did in 2008, while 5 percent more Republicans and nearly half of the independent population will sit this humdrum election out.

The conventional wisdom of this election has long held that Obama will have a huge lead in early voting, and the Democrats have at least a +3 registration advantage.  But both of those contentions have been called into question by recent polls from Gallup, which holds that Romney is ahead five points in early voting, and the Republicans actually have a 1-point registration edge.  If Gallup’s assessment of the electorate is accurate, Romney is on his way to a resounding victory.  If the Democrats really do have an 8-point advantage, Obama will probably win.

2. Voter enthusiasm.  It doesn’t help to have an advantage among registered voters if they don’t show up at the polls.  One of the big differences between various polling outfits is how seriously they attempt to screen out “likely voters.”  Some even maintain a higher category of “committed voters,” who have either already voted, or have a long history of turning up at the polls.   Such commitment levels are especially difficult to judge among young voters, who by definition have no lengthy voting history to study.

In the very same CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac poll that gives Obama a clean sweep of the swing states, with more Democrats turning out than during even Our First Black President’s historic victory over John Mc-What’s-His-Name, Republican enthusiasm is reportedly higher than Democrats by double digits in Florida and Ohio.  So the Democrats are recruiting a tidal wave of unenthusiastic voters?

Cranking up voter enthusiasm is a complicated bit of political alchemy.  One of the potential pitfalls is the use of appeals that actually get the opponent’s base riled up.  The Romney campaign has been generally careful to avoid this (some would say too careful.)  Obama and his allies, on the other hand, have not shied away from over-the-top appeals that verge on hysteria.  Maybe the Obama approach will prove to be more effective, but it seems more likely to provoke the kind of backlash that would mitigate its net effectiveness… to say nothing of alienating…

3. Independent voters.  So are these folks the key to electoral victory, or not?  Sneer at this poll or that poll for its unrealistic sample if you will, but none of them show anything but a solid Romney lead among independents.  Virtually all of them give him at least a six-point edge both nationally and in the swing states.  Some of them give him a lot more than that… even as they nevertheless assert Obama will win states where Romney is ahead among independent voters by double digits.  That Quinnipiac poll says Romney has an astonishing twenty-one point lead among independents in Virginia… but still insists Obama will win the state by two points.

Until now, the indy vote has always been seen as either the crucial element of a winning coalition, or a reflection of broad electoral strength – you either win because you’ve got the independents, or you’ve got the independents because you’re winning.  Obama carried independents by 8 points in 2008; Romney is generally seen to be even further ahead with them now.

Independent voters can also serve as a harbinger of the crossover vote.  Just as some declared independents actually lean strongly Republican or Democrat, some people with partisan registration can be persuaded to become crossover voters, and the crossover vote tends to follow the same trade winds as the independents.

4. The tides of incumbency.  There are two general thoughts about the strategic position of the incumbent President.  On the downside, late-breaking undecided voters tend to go against the incumbent, because if they’re still undecided on November 6, they’re clearly not sold on the idea of a second term.  Republican strategists hope this tendency will cut against a sitting President with a record as poor as Obama’s.  His job approval and “country on the right track” numbers have been soft, although not as bad as his most energetic critics might have expected.

Even those who don’t hold Obama fully responsible for the American engine chugging down the “wrong track” still don’t see much they’d like to repeat for another four years, and undecided voters are inherently receptive to the idea of giving The Other Guy a shot.  Obama’s campaign team knows this, which is why they worked so hard to demonize Romney during his period of vulnerability after the Republican primary ended.  They wanted to make him so toxic that undecided voters would not even consider him as an alternative, sending them back to Obama… or keeping them home on Election Day, nestled in an easy chair of despair as they dine upon TV dinners of disgust, and order gift baskets full of pox for delivery to both candidates’ houses.

Obama’s strategy to nuke Romney out of contention clearly was not completely successful, particularly after Romney’s amazing victory in the first presidential debate… but it’s too soon to say that it didn’t work at all, or work well enough.  The Obama campaign’s final week has been focused on all the old negative themes, even including the resurrection of their Bain Capital attacks.  That could be taken as a sign of desperation – or it could mean Team Obama has data indicating their negative campaign has been working just well enough to make it worth re-emphasizing.

The up side of being the incumbent is that you have more power to draw media attention and shape events, as we can see in the Hurricane Sandy aftermath.  There is literally no way for a challenger to compete with the incumbent on such terms; the challenger cannot be photographed in the White House Situation Room holding a phone and looking concerned.  The challenger will not be invited to tour storm-damaged areas, or thanked by governors for making timely disaster declarations.  Praise for the challenger’s leadership will not be offered by political leaders and agency administrators at press conferences.

There’s nothing partisan or unique to Obama about that advantage – it’s just the way things are.  The power of the media “force multiplier” for the advantage of looking presidential has partisan overtones, of course.  And this isn’t limited to disaster relief, which is unsurprisingly a hot topic in the news as November 2012 begins.  The sitting President always has greater power to shape the news, particularly when the news is eagerly willing to be shaped by a candidate the media loves.  What has Mitt Romney been able to do that would command national press attention since the final debate?  And if undecided voters haven’t already ruled Obama out because of his record, will it be so hard for him to use the power of the Oval Office to toss them a little bait during the last week of the election?

5. How are the campaigns behaving?  There’s a lot of spin coming from the Obama campaign about Romney’s expansion into “blue firewall” states.  They want to characterize this as desperation on Romney’s part – a last-ditch effort to cook up long-shot Plans B, C, and D if Plan A doesn’t pan out in Ohio.

The fact that Obama’s campaign has been trying to spin these developments, while Team Romney just smiles and pours money into Pennsylvania without comment, may tell us something about what those fabled “internal polls” look like.  Maybe Romney’s just trying to rattle Obama’s cage, but those ad buys in formerly solid-blue states would be rather expensive decoys.  There’s also a sense that Ohio has already been carpet-bombed into political oblivion, and the marginal return on further campaign dollars might have decreased.  There are an awful lot of polls showing Romney within striking distance in blue states, while very little evidence – beyond the way some polling outfits see Florida – that Obama’s making comparable inroads into John McCain’s 2008 turf.

6. Momentum.  Ah, the Big Mo.  Many longtime political observers think momentum is the best indicator of how tight races will turn out.  If things are neck-and-neck, but the last few polls showed Candidate A steadily improving his position, Candidate A will probably cross the finish line by a nose.

The momentum has almost all been going Romney’s way, even in those Democrat-saturated polls that put Obama ahead in the battleground states.  For example, the most recent Franklin & Marshall poll in Pennsylvania still has Obama ahead by 49-45, which is  just within the margin of error (and within the ability of the 5 percent undecided to settle, if they break heavily for Romney.)  But that’s a huge 7-point swing in Romney’s direction in just one month, and Romney’s “favorability ratings have improved markedly.”

Such trends are encouraging for Romney, although it should also be noted that many a consultant has wailed that momentum would have carried his candidate to victory, if only the election had lasted one more week.  We’ll know which indicators of this election’s outcome were most significant in a week (or, if it’s really close, maybe sometime before Easter.)  There’s no question that some conventional wisdom will be shattered, some models invalidated, and a bellwether or two will stop ringing.  For example, the Gallup organization will tell you no candidate who has held a lead above 50 percent for as long as Romney has ever lost the election.  Will they have to stop making that claim next week… or will next month’s revised conventional wisdom assure us that anyone who ever doubted the power of Gallup’s prediction was foolish?