Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Polling and the Debate

The pace of polling has slowed down since last week, but the overall trend is still towards Barack Obama in the swing states. His national numbers are somewhat closer, but Gallup (RV poll) still has him up six and Rasmussen has him leading by one, which is down two points from Monday. New Quinnipiac and CNN polls have Obama ahead by four and three, respectively, and the Washington Times has him up nine.

There has been a great deal of debate in the polling world, that has spilled over into the general population, about poll methodologies and whether the national polling firms are oversampling Democrats to arrive at their numbers. My view is that the polling firms are seeing a shift in the number of people who are identifying themselves as Democrats and are adjusting their findings based on that shift and the overall demographics of the polls they're taking. It would be counterproductive to say that a pollster such as NBC/WSJ is cooking the numbers because NBC is part of the equation. By that measure, the Washington Times should have Romney ahead since they are a conservative publication, but they have a D-37 R-34 I-29 split while showing Obama with a 50-41% lead. Is the Washington Times in the tank for the president? Scott Rasmussen? The Wall Street Journal (whose pollster was aligned with the Bush Administration)? I would think not. I can certainly understand why some would question a sample that has a D+9 spread, but I would be loathe to assign a diabolical plot to such a poll.

The other clue about the accuracy of the released polls is how the campaigns are acting. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are not smiling easily or walking with the swagger of frontrunners. They are fighting hard for the swing states they need to win and are assiduously making their case for election. President Obama is likewise running thousands of ads in Colorado, Ohio and Florida and fighting for every vote. Neither side is ahead by a substantial margin at this point. The polls will change, but it would be irresponsible to say that they're accurate only if the candidate you support is leading.

Where does that leave us with the first debate directly ahead? Can debates change people's minds? Yes, they can. But they seldom do. With Mitt Romney behind in the swing state polls, he needs to have a solid performance against a president who is not as effective a debater as many people think. Romney's had more recent experience because of the GOP primary debates while Obama has been making speeches, which he's good at, but he can become wordy and pedantic with some of his answers. In the end, Romney has to convey a narrative that leads voters to believe that the country needs a change in leadership. Obama will need to more forcefully defend his policies and remind voters of the state of the country when he took office. Will likeability also play a role? You bet. And we all have to be on gaffe watch duty in case it provides a turning point.

Enjoy the show.

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