Is the sky falling on Obama? Quick, let's take another poll

A new Pew poll has Obama suddenly 4 points behind Mitt Romney. Did one debate upend the apple cart? Did Obama just throw away his reelection? What polls tell us (and what they don't.)

Sandip Roy October 10, 2012 14:14:00 IST
Is the sky falling on Obama? Quick, let's take another poll

The sky is falling in America. It’s all because of one poll. A Pew poll done after the first presidential debate has Obama supporters in a complete tizzy.

Andrew Sullivan on The Daily Beast had his finger jammed on the panic button.

Look: I'm trying to rally some morale, but I've never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week - throw away almost every single advantage he had with voters and manage to enable his opponent to seem as if he cares about the middle class as much as Obama does.

So what’s in this damning, devastating poll?

In a September 12-16 poll Romney trailed Obama by eight points among likely voters.

In a post-debate poll, Obama lags four percentage points behind Romney.

What’s sent the likes of Sullivan into an even greater hysterical frenzy is the fact that Romney has erased Obama’s gender advantage. Women are evenly divided (47%) between the two. Last month Obama had an 18 point lead over Romney among women.

Is the sky falling on Obama Quick lets take another poll


A Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll also had bad news for Obama but not as dire as the Pew poll.

Reuters found Romney and Obama tied at 45 percent each among likely voters.

Obama still leads by five points among registered voters in Gallup's latest tracking poll, which averages seven days of data.

A Rasmussen Reports survey where Obama had trailed Romney by 2 points now shows him tied with the Republican.

A RAND Corporation poll shows no change from Sunday, leading the New York Times Nate Silver to say “all of this seemed to be consistent with a story in which Mr Romney’s debate bounce was receding some.”

So what does this prove? Nothing really except too many polls keep this election broth boiling. Polls are basically make-news because no one knows exactly who will vote on Election Day. Pollster Cliff Young told Reuters that the race is actually where these races are in the last weeks of the campaign.

"Things are probably back to where they should be. This is a race where Romney should be up sometimes," Young said.

What Sullivan's meltdown really proves is how the media is addicted to polls. They are the lifeblood of campaigns and campaign coverage. In the end elections are a crap shoot but the polls are treated as immutable scientific facts, a solid foundation upon which reporters write stories and experts pontificate. In reality they are quicksand.

During the Bush vs Kerry election, on election day itself pollsters got it wrong predicting that Kerry would win based on exit polls.

Here’s the indisputable fact. Obama flunked his debate. Romney won it. We don’t need a pollster to tell us that. But even a few days before the debate the same media pundits were all opining that Romney had an uphill struggle ahead of him because the pool of undecided voters was so low.

So if Pew is right, something happened in that one debate that caused a huge surge of decided voters to swing from Obama to Romney. Now Obama’s greatest sin was he was lacklustre, not that he committed any poll-shaking gaffes. If that’s all it takes for 12% of likely voters to move lemming-like towards Romney that’s a sad commentary on the American electorate.

"Decided voter" apparently just means decided until the next pollster calls.

But the real catch is polls are just a slice that claims to be representative of the whole cake. But the electorate isn’t a fruitcake. Some parts have more fruit. Some parts have more nuts. The Christian Science Monitor says analysts are already saying there’s a bit of apples and oranges at play in the Pew polls.

In Pew's September poll, 39 percent of likely voters considered themselves Democrats, compared with 29 percent who considered themselves Republicans. In this latest October poll, that flipped, with 31 percent of likely voters considering themselves Democrats and 36 percent considering themselves Republicans.

It also matters when the interviews were conducted — in the first flush of victory after the debate or a few days later when the glow had faded a little.

Meanwhile stay tuned for more breathless polling after the vice presidential debate this week which is already being touted as the most important vice presidential debate ever.

The New York Times’ Nate Silver has the best advice about polling:

 (I)t’s one thing to give a poll a lot of weight, and another to become so enthralled with it that you dismiss all other evidence.

The Pew Poll is important and a wake-up call to Obama’s supporters but it’s value is just as a snapshot of the moment, not necessarily a predictor of the future. For a Sullivan to scream that Obama is throwing the election away is like judging an entire film based on one still from it.

That would be like lesbians running off to Jaipur in droves just because the annual India Today sex survey told us that 27 percent of women in Jaipur fantasize about a lesbian relationship.

It did. But I wouldn’t advise any lesbian friends to start packing their bags.

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