The Plank

Have The Polls Thrown The Media Off Its Game?


One of the truisms of political reporting is that it is exceptionally
results-oriented. When a campaign wins, essentially every aspect of
that campaign is deemed to be praiseworthy, and when a campaign loses,
almost every aspect of the campaign is deemed to be a failure.Think
how much different the conventional wisdom would be if Al Gore had won
300 more votes in Florida. Bush's strategy of rallying to the
evangelical base would have been considered a failure, as would the
Rovian politics of personal destruction. But instead, because of what
was essentially a mathematical coin-flip -- the vote count was so close
in Florida that nobody really knows who won -- these things are
considered to be standard operating practice in any competent campaign.In
the absence of actual results, what opinion-makers look toward instead
is polls. And presently, with John McCain holding a 1-2 point lead in
most national polls, essentially every aspect of Barack Obama's
campaign has come under intense scrutiny, whereas Steve Schmidt is
regarded as some kind of savant. This is even worse than being
results-oriented, because we don't yet know the ultimate effect of the
choices the McCain campaign has made on November's results. Certain of
their choices, such as their intensely negative campaign against Barack
Obama and perhaps even their selection of Sarah Palin, may be
short-term winners but long-term losers.Conversely, the Obama
campaign's focus on the ground game has come under criticism in some
circles, even though almost by definition most of its effects will not
be known until after the election. Suppose that, because of their
ground efforts, the Obama campaign is 5 percent more efficient at
turning out its vote than the McCain campaign on Election Day in the 22
states or so where it has concentrated its efforts. The implications of
this would be absolutely enormous -- a net of 2-3 points in each and
every swing state -- but we know zip, zilch, nada at this stage about
their ultimate effect.Besides all that, there is nothing particularly impressive about the Republican bounce. It has followed almost exactly the pattern that we predicted ahead of time when two typical convention bounces are taken and laid on top of one another:...that
is, first a sharp tick upward in Obama's numbers, peaking at about a
6-point bounce, and then an even sharper downtick, bringing McCain
about 2 points ahead of where the numbers stood in the pre-convention
period. The final phase has yet to occur, but was predicted to consist
of gradual lessening of the
net GOP bounce over a period of a couple of weeks, as the day-to-day
banalities of the campaign tend to displace the emotional high of the
convention from voters' memory banks.This is not to suggest
that the Obama campaign is sitting on some sort of latent electoral
magic bullet. If there are still 2-3 points worth of "bounce" in the
McCain numbers, that would suggest once things return to equilibrium,
Obama will be 1-2 points ahead rather than McCain being up by the same
margin -- better results for him, certainly, but hardly a commanding
advantage.The better question from my vantage point is why
Obama's lead dwindled from a peak of 5-6 points in June to 0-2 points
in the week or two immediately prior to the conventions. Even if
McCain's convention bounce is entirely "real", he would still have
gained more ground in the polls between June and the conventions than
he did during the convention period itself.I think the Obama campaign's messaging, with an exception
here and there, has actually been fairly sharp of late. In contrast, I
think they wasted a lot of time over the summer on things ranging from
Obama having to play defense after he flip-flopped on FISA, to the
European leg of his foreign trip, to the unnecessarily drawn out and
ultimately anticlimactic VP rollout process. But since Obama had
maintained a lead in the polls throughout that period, those things did
not receive nearly so much scrutiny as Obama is getting now.

--Nate Silver 

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