ELECTIONATE AUGUST 1, 2012
It’s been a pretty rough week of polling for Mitt Romney. Last week, NBC/WSJ showed Obama opening up a 6 point lead nationally, and Democracy Corps showed Obama at 50 percent among likely voters with a 4 point advantage. This morning’s trifecta of swing state surveys conducted by the venerable pollsters at Quinnipiac added to the fire, showing Obama leading by a substantial margin in the three largest battleground states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.
It’s hard to understate just how badly Romney fared in these polls. Not only does Romney trail the President, but Obama stood above 50 percent in all three states. Surprisingly, the polls surveyed likely voters—a first for Quinnipiac this cycle—and traditionally an area of weakness for the President. Just for good measure, Obama matched his favorables and exceeded his approval rating by a meaningful margin.
However, it would not be wise to assign outsized weight to any one survey, especially to the exclusion of other results. That holds true with these three surveys, perhaps especially since it’s not hard to look beneath the hood and find reasons why the polls might be a little too good for Obama. The polls sampled an electorate that voted for Obama by 13 and 15 points in Florida and Ohio, even though Obama only won by 3 and 5 points in 2008. Some have also noted that the polls show Democrats with a large partisan advantage, but Sean Trende saves me some space by dispatching that argument.
But even though it wouldn't be wise to declare the election over, conservatives inclined to dismiss these polls are making a mistake. For one, none of these results differ wildly from recent polls—especially in Ohio, where Obama looks like he could be pulling ahead. The polls show Obama’s approval rating in the upper 40's, just where it is nationally, and the demographics look about right. And remember: This is a poll of likely voters, and a lot of conservative hopes are hinging on the possibility that the switch to LV models will put Romney in the lead. While this poll doesn’t single-handedly crush that possibility, it’s still notable that Quinnipiac didn’t shift toward Romney after flipping to a likely voter model.
Just as importantly, the Quinnipiac results are consistent with recent national polls that might suggest Obama’s lead is a little larger than previously thought. We’re at a peculiar point where many of the most highly regarded polls are showing a sizable advantage for the president, including NBC/WSJ, Democracy Corps, Pew Research, and Quinnipiac. And perhaps this is just the liberal media bias, but many pollsters showing a tighter race, including Rasmussen, Gallup, and JZ Analytics, have weathered an outsized share of criticism over the last few years.
Even my point about the sample overwhelmingly voting for Obama in 2008 isn’t overwhelmingly powerful, since it’s typical for voters who selected the losing candidate to claim otherwise in later years. Folks with a long memory might recall that the 2004 exit polls showed that the electorate voted for Bush over Gore by 6 points in the 2000 election. Similarly, the heavily Democratic 2008 electorate voted for Bush by 9 points over Kerry. Instead, 4 percent claimed to vote for “someone else,” even though only 1 percent of 2004 voters actually did vote for a third party candidate. Perhaps tellingly, these supposed “someone else” voters selected Obama over McCain by 42 points.
Ultimately, the folks discounting these numbers or trumpeting them as dispositive evidence of Obama's advantage are making a mistake. Almost any poll can be dissected into oblivion if you squint hard enough, and you'll almost never find a poll that you look at and say, well, that one must be right! Even if you did, the right call is to throw the polls into the averages. If these polls are unduly tilted toward Obama, we'll probably learn that over the coming weeks. In the interim, the balance of polling shows Obama with a modest advantage nationally and in the swing states.