CBS Poll Shows Trump Barely Ahead – But Do The Polls Matter Now?

A rather shocking CBS/YouGov poll shows 91-count felony defendant Donald Trump leading President Biden by a 50-49% margin. The fact that Trump has been indicted in multiple jurisdictions, including crimes related to harming the national security of the United States seems to be less of a concern to voters than the fact that Joe Biden is old. And while it is certainly true that Joe Biden is old, the candidate with the clearest cognitive difficulties is Donald Trump. So why is it faced with such an obvious, stark choice that the American public is split down the middle?

The fact is that political polling in this country is broken. Pollsters still rely largely on phone calls to conduct polls. As technology has moved on that method of polling has become less and less reliable. And even when polling methods were much better a poll taken a full year prior to an election is hardly worth the paper it’s printed on the bandwidth used to transmit it. As the CBS article notes, in past polls at this time showed Bob Dole beating Bill Clinton and Barack Obama at risk of losing. We all know how those elections turned out.

What this poll really measures is less about the horse race of the election and more about political partisanship. The people who are answering pollster phone calls a year prior to the election are more likely than not the most partisan Americans. The “normal” voter is not paying attention except in the most general terms. And it would not be shocking at all if Trump has an edge—even a significant edge—in terms of partisan intensity. But as 2020 showed us, elections are not won by riling up the most partisan MAGA base. And even among the most tuned-in members of the electorate, the people crazy enough to answer a pollster’s phone calls, the vote is split evenly.

Now, if this were September 2024 rather than September 2023 that would be causing all sorts of alarm bells to ring in the Biden camp. But over the next year just about anything could happen. And the normal voter is just not paying attention, and it’s the normal voter that decides elections in this country. That’s why those very early polls showing Bob Dole up and Barack Obama down ended up not mattering at all. Plus there are a whole flock of black swans in the 2024 cycle. We already saw how suburban women punished the GOP for the Dobbs case in 2022, and that anger is not going away. We already saw how toxic Trump was with ordinary voters, especially moderate suburbanite voters, and that has not gone away either.

The real fear the Democrats should have is that Trump will motivate his base, which is only in the low 40% range of the electorate, but Democrats will decide to stay home. That would be a much bigger problem for the Democrats in a normal election year against a normal GOP candidate. But Biden isn’t going to be running against a normal GOP candidate, he’s going to be running against Donald Trump. And Trump motivates the Democratic base too.

The polls just do not matter right now except for generating clicks. What it does tell us is that among the most politically active Americans the race is evenly split. What happens when the rest of the country tunes in will decide how the 2024 race proceeds.

The State Of The Race 2012 – Part I

The dust has settled from the contentious GOP primary battle, and it looks like Mitt Romney will be the GOP’s 2012 nominee. It’s now on to the general election, where the future of Barack Obama’s Presidency will be tested.

Even though polling this far out is of limited usefulness, it does give us some idea of how the race could turn out in seven months. There are certain factors and historical data that can give us some idea of where this race will go. But elections are shaped by current events rather than past history—in September 2008, John McCain was briefly ahead of Obama until Sarah Palin flamed out and McCain’s bizarre campaign suspension eliminated his momentum through the end of the race. In 2000, George W. Bush was looking to beat Al Gore by a substantial margin—until DWI allegations put him on the defensive and cost him votes, resulting in one of the closest races in American history and a popular vote loss. We have no idea what may happen in 2012 that could have a profound impact on the race.

But, with those caveats in mind, we can start to see the shape of the race as it stands now, and what it means for President Obama and Governor Romney:

This Race Will Be A Referendum

First, this is a race between an incumbent President and a challenger – which means that the 2012 election will largely be a referendum on Barack Obama. (Joe Klein’s arguments notwithstanding.) In general, an incumbent President either stands or falls based on his performance in office. If the American electorate is generally happy with the performance of a President, he’ll be reelected. If they are not, and the other side puts up a credible challenger, that President will lose.

That dynamic appears most clearly in the President’s approval ratings on a state-by-state basis. An incumbent President’s approval ratings are a good predictor of whether they will be reelected or not. As it stands right now, President Obama’s approval rating is at 47% in the RealClearPolitics polling composite. He’s slightly underwater with his disapproval rating at 48%. For an incumbent, that’s a danger zone—not fatal, but not where an incumbent President wants to be. As a point of comparison, President Bush was at 52% approval in mid-April 2004.

As we dig down to the state level, this becomes more important. Traditionally, an incumbent with approval rating over 50% is regarded as “safe” and one with an approval rating under 50% is regarded as “in trouble.” Political prognosticator Ronald Brownstein, writing in the National Journal, argues that 47% is the real “tipping point”, and if a President’s approval rating is below 47%, then he’s in real trouble.

So, we can assume that if President Obama is over 50% approval in a state, he’s likely to win that state’s electoral votes. On the other hand, if he’s at 45% or below, he’s not going to win that state unless his approval rating changes dramatically. If he’s at 47% or less, that state would lean towards the Romney, and if Obama’s approval rating is over 47%, the state would lean towards Obama.

Obama’s Electoral Battlefield

Gallup performed state by state polling in 2011 that gives some contours to where Obama stands in each state. It isn’t pretty for Obama. He is above 50% in only a few states. If we use the 47% approval rating as a guidepost, Obama is cruising towards a huge loss in the Electoral College. He would lose 215 to 323, an electoral blowout. Crucially, he’d lose the key states that he needs to hold to win: namely Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and Iowa. He’d also lose Oregon, a state that has tended to be Democratic, but only by a close margin.

Obviously, Obama losing Oregon seems like a rather distant proposition, and Gallup’s numbers are fairly old, and were taken before the GOP race had settled. But, what this does show is that the race is far from over: Obama’s approval rating on a national and a state-by-state basis indicates a much tighter race than 2008.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

The biggest factor in this race will be the economy. Unemployment is trending downward, but the results are mixed at best. But, it’s hard to judge just what effect the unemployment rate really has an election—electoral data doesn’t give us much to go on in predicting how unemployment will effect the race. It’s true that no President since FDR has won reelection with more than 7.2% unemployment, but that by itself does’t give us much to go on. The sample set is simply too small.

But subjective feelings will matter. If in the fall of 2012 people really do feel that the economy is getting better, they’ll be more inclined to reelect the President. If they feel that they are no better off than they were in 2008, they’ll be more inclined to get rid of him. The data on Obama’s economic record spells trouble for Obama—high gas prices are hurting his rating on economic issues, and the electorate doesn’t really seem to think that the economy is truly turning a corner.

That’s why the data points will only tell you so much. In the 1992 election the economy was recovering, but George H.W. Bush still lost to Bill Clinton (thanks in large part to Ross Perot). People don’t respond to economic data, they respond to their subjective feelings. Unfortunately, that’s hard to measure and doesn’t follow the raw data—it could well be that unemployment drifts down by November 2012, but that doesn’t mean that President Obama is a lock for re-election.

The Hope And Change Is Gone

There is one more subjective factor worthy of mention: this isn’t 2008. In 2008, Obama could run as a cypher, a blank slate upon which voters could project their hopes and dreams. His campaign of “hope” and “change” and his ability to position himself as a post-partisan, post-racial figure helped him appeal to independents and even some Republicans. He ran less on his record (scant as it was), and more on a set of vague promises. But four years later, that is no longer an option for the President. He has to run on his record now, and his policies from from bailouts to Obamacare have been more divisive than uniting. The 2010 election could also be considered a referendum on his performance, and that should give the Obama team pause.

Obama simply doesn’t have the option of running as the Obama of 2008—but that doesn’t mean that he can’t reinvent himself into a form that’s palatable to enough independents to get reelected. But that also means that the unprecedented wave of support that lifted him up in 2008 may not materialize this time: in 2008 Barack Obama was the Next Big Thing, the great figure that would bring the country together and wipe away the supposed sins of the Bush years. Now, he’s just another politician. The Democrats may have a deep reserve of support to draw upon, but they’ve always had that. At this time, it doesn’t seem like Obama can rekindle the magic of 2008. It’s safe to assume that even if Obama is re-elected, it won’t be by the same margins he got four years ago.

Where Do We Go From Here?

So, with all those factors in play, what can we say about the current state of the race? The honest answer is that it’s looking close, but we don’t know much more than that. It’s too early to say that Obama is a shoe-in for re-election or Romney should start thinking about Cabinet appointments. This is anyone’s game, and with such partisan polarization, it’s very likely that it will stay a tight race for most (if not all) of the race.

That being said, the structural factors give a slight edge to Romney. Obama has a weak approval rating for an incumbent President. The economy may recover, but it’s questionable whether it would be enough. Obama’s state-by-state approval ratings show weakness in key swing states. But that slight edge is very slight indeed, and could disappear if trends change.

As the race continues other factors will start emerging—the most important of which may be the discipline and effectiveness of Romney’s campaign. The McCain campaign was horrendously mismanaged, botching McCain’s “suspension” of his campaign, mishandling Sarah Palin, and was generally weak and ineffective. So far Romney has shown great discipline and messaging—but also a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. If you want to know how the dynamics of the race may play out, watch how well organized the Romney camp is over the next few months. Because when it gets down to the post-Labor Day crunch time, campaign discipline can make or break a political campaign.

Pundit Fight: Cost Versus Silver

Over at The New York Times, political polling wizard Nate Silver argues that the generic ballot may be overstating Republican gains. At The Weekly Standard, political polling wizard Jay Cost says that there’s no real evidence that the generic ballot is really overstating Republican gains.

Cost vs. Silver can’t be any worse than this movie…

The Generic Ballot 101

But first, a little background on what the generic ballot means. The generic ballot question is when a pollster asks whether a voter would prefer a generic Democrat or a generic Republican. This measure tends to track the share of votes between the parties—and that share of votes between the parties can help predict how many seats a party will win in a given election. Now, its true that real campaigns aren’t between Generic Republican and Generic Democrat—but nevertheless the generic ballot still correlates quite nicely to the overall vote share.

But there’s a quirk to the generic ballot—it tends to understate Republican performance. There’s some debate about just how much, although the consensus is somewhere between 2 and 3%. That means that Republicans will traditionally get 2-3% more of the actual vote share than they get in the national vote share. That’s why the last Gallup poll in 1994 showed the generic ballot a dead heat, but the GOP went on to take 54 House seats and 7 Senate seats, retaking Congress.

Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!

But Nate Silver argues that isn’t true this year. He argues that the generic ballot is overrepresenting Republican gains instead of underrepresenting them. He looks at a series of polls conducted by the American Action Forum, a conservative group that did several polls in key House races across the country. What was interesting about the AAF polls is that they asked both the generic ballot question, and then named the candidates. The result was that the Generic Republican led by a larger margin than the actual Republican candidate.

But, says Jay Cost, there’s a reason for that—the AAF poll has a higher percentage of people who responded “Depends” to the generic ballot question than in other national polls. Which means that it’s not directly comparable with other generic ballot polls. Not only that, but in many cases the Democratic candidate was better known than the Republican challenger—or the Republican challenger hadn’t even been formally picked yet. Naturally, someone who is better known will poll better than someone who is less known. (Unless the better known candidate is really hated by the electorate.)

Of course, I’m guessing that Cost is right. Not only because I’m horribly biased and want to see Nancy Pelosi return to San Francisco where she can become a full-time Lon Chaney impersonator. But also because one set of polls has a lot less weight than 50 years of collected polling data.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Silver is wrong. It could be that the generic ballot is overstating Republican gains. There could be some heretofore unexplained phenomenon that’s skewing the generic ballot and causing bloggers to use the word “heretofore.” After all, the generic ballot figures have been all over the map this election cycle. One week the Republicans are up 10, the next it’s tied. The clear trend is that the Republicans are up, but by how much isn’t entirely clear.

So, we won’t really know who is right until after Election Day. And if it’s not clear by then, we can also settle it with a no-holds-barred cage match.

The Minnesota Poll Strikes Again

If you believe the latest Star-Tribune poll, Al Franken leads Norm Coleman by over 10%.

If you believe that, I also have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

At PowerLine, Scott Johnson takes a sharp look at the poll and a contemporaneous SurveyUSA poll showing Coleman with a modest lead. The Minnesota Poll dramatically undersampled Republicans and oversampled Democrats. Given that Franken couldn’t beat 75% in a primary against an unknown opponent, not even Dean Barkley will be able to save him. Coleman’s negative ads are effective because they simply show the truth about Al Franken: that he’s a partisan bomb-thrower. The media is furious, but the voters deserve the truth about Franken’s propensity for violent outbursts.

Sen. Coleman has been a strong voice for Minnesota. He is not the unthinking partisan that the Minnesota left-wing tries to paint him as being. He is a thoughtful moderate running against an ideological extremist—and he will win. Al Franken is the antithesis of “Minnesota Nice,” and his intemperance and propensity to fly off the handle are character traits that are completely wrong for a deliberative body like the Senate.

Did Obama Get A Convention Bounce?

The RealClearPolitics polling average shows a typical 6–8% convention bounce for Barack Obama. These polls may be right, but note that all of them are polls conducted over a weekend—and there is anecdotal evidence that weekend polls favor Democrats. Even though the evidence is far from conclusive, Obama’s “bounce” is just that—a bounce. The dynamics of this race have not significantly changed, and such as they have, it’s more likely in McCain’s favor.

To be bold, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Obama will underperform his polling numbers. The reasons aren’t as much due to race as the bandwagon effect. Some Clinton voters are “coming home” to Obama now, but they may tell the pollsters one thing, but do another. Remember Obama’s big lead in New Hampshire? As it turned out, the polls were wrong. I have a feeling that late breaking voters will break towards McCain. Voters who haven’t made up their minds tend to go to the “safe” choice, and here that choice is McCain—the more experienced candidate.

Much will be made of polling over the next 60 days, but polling is as much art as science. There’s plenty of reasons to think that conventional methodologies for political polling are breaking down. Polls give some indications of where things are headed, but they are in no ways dispositive.

Obama may have gotten a typical convention bounce, but he should be wiping the floor with McCain. An unpopular war, a deeply unpopular President, a Republican Party with an image problem—and yet Obama can only eke out a slender lead against McCain. McCain, to his credit, has proven to be a disciplined and effective candidate, and the results of the Presidential debates could be telling—there is a reason why Obama refused McCain’s invitation to do voter town halls.

One thing is clear: this race is not even close to over, and the predictions that Obama has this in the bag are unwarranted. McCain is much tougher than he appeared to be, and he could end up doing to Obama nationally what Clinton did to Obama in New Hampshire this winter.

Is McCain Surging In Iowa?

That’s what the latest ARG poll of Iowa shows. McCain is ahead of Romney in that poll. In NH, ARG shows McCain tied for first place.

What this goes to show is how volatile polling in Iowa really is. The dynamics of the race are constantly shifting, and a long-shot contender like McCain has just as much of a shot as Romney or Huckabee. Because this is a caucus rather than an open primary the actual results will be decided by a relatively small number of people—and those people aren’t always the people answering the pollster’s questions.

It will be interesting to see if Sen. McCain can execute an “up the middle” strategy in Iowa and New Hampshire. The big issue that has been hurting McCain has been immigration, but that issue hasn’t been dominating the headlines as much as it has. McCain has a strong appeal with fiscal and national defense conservatives, and he’s an acceptable candidate with social conservatives as well. If McCain does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, it could completely alter the dynamics of the race.

Could there be a McCain/Lieberman unity ticket in the future? I wouldn’t be making any big bets on it, but in this fluid time, it’s not impossible either.

The Problem With Polling Iowa

Pollster Mark Blumenthal has an interesting bit on how selection bias may be skewing the polls in Iowa:

The point here, in case it is not obvious: Non-response bias may have exaggerated the percentages of younger (under 45) caucus goers the 2004 Iowa entrance poll (something I wondered about a month or so ago). And since I’m assuming that age is strongly related to having attended a caucus in the past, the entrance poll estimate of the number of caucus newcomers in 2004 may be exaggerated as well.

Basically, older caucus-goers are less likely to talk with younger polltakers, which means that candidates like Dean or Obama that tend to have more support from younger voters look stronger in the polls than they actually are. The way in which the Iowa caucus system works heavily favors older voters who tend to be a part of the caucuses year after year. That’s why the results in Iowa may be vastly different from the way they’re portrayed—candidates like Obama don’t tend to have the same appeal to the typical Iowa caucus-goer as they do to the typical voter.

I’d be willing to guess that the story coming out of Iowa will be the resurgence of Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s made some major missteps in the last few months, but that’s made it easier for her to steal a page from her husband’s playbook and become the Comeback Kid—and with the latest CNN/WaPo poll putting her comfortably ahead in New Hampshire helps in painting a picture of a campaign on the upswing.

As for the Republican race, the effect of potential poll bias remains to be seen. It could be that Huckabee’s appeal to evangelicals matches with the target profile of Iowa caucus-goers. Or it could mean that Romney, McCain, or Thompson could get a boost from older voters. The race has been up in the air for weeks now, and the potential for change is so great that it’s simply impossible to make a worthwhile call.

Polling is never an exact science, which is why it only has limited utility in a campaign. A candidate like John Kerry who was in the single digits at this point in 2003 can suddenly sweep the nomination. A candidate like Howard Dean that appears unstoppable can end up losing big. Part of the fun in politics is in contests like this where anything could change. (Although it’s much less fun for those on the inside of a campaign.) The first rule of polling should be not to trust polling, as it’s as much of an art as a science. It’s quite possible that everything we’ve heard about the race in the last few weeks may be rendered moot when Iowans actually go into their caucuses and pick their candidates.

Why You Shouldn’t Trust Polls

CNN has a poll that shows Mike Huckabee surging in the GOP race. Now, this may be true, but the poll itself is worthless as an indicator.

Here’s the key part:

The poll, conducted December 6-9, involved nationwide telephone interviews with 377 registered Republicans voters or independent voters who lean Republican.

Let’s count the number of problems with this poll:

  1. The poll has only 377 respondents for a supposedly national poll. That’s a very low number of respondents and not a large enough sample to be statistically significant.
  2. The poll includes independents who “lean Republican.” Exactly what does that term mean. Are they strongly Republican? Moderately Republican? Sorta-kinda Republicanish?
  3. For that matter, how many voters who “lean Republican” would actually vote in a Republican primary? If you’re sampling a group of people who aren’t likely to vote in a GOP primary then your sample isn’t representative of the real shape of that contest.
  4. The poll was conducted over a weekend. How many people care to spend time answering a pollsters questions on a weekend? Especially if you’re polling Republicans, who tend more often than not to be churchgoers, weekend polling tends to depress results. (Which may explain why the Democratic sample was 467 voters compared to the 377 Republicans sampled.)
  5. The margin of error was 5 points, which is very significant when you’re dealing with so many candidates separated by such small margins.

Here’s the problem: polling at this stage in the race is worthless. You have to find the voters who A) actually care about the race at this point in time and B) actually have a reasonable chance of voting in a primary. That’s a crapshoot, which is why these polls have less than 500 respondents in their samples. That’s not enough to make a statistically meaningful measure, and when you factor in all the other problems you get a result that doesn’t say a whole lot.

It seems likely that Huckabee is doing very well. It could also be that the polls are worthless. As a case in point, look back to a snapshot of the Democratic race at this point in 2003.It’s interesting how much the 2007 Republican race resembled the 2003 Democratic race. None of the candidates had found their niche. There was talk of a brokered convention. The field was entirely up on the air. The primary schedule had been compressed which gave less time for a slow build as in past races. John Kerry was at 4%. He was polling behind Al Sharpton. Howard Dean was unstoppable. He had the organization, he had a group of supporters that were fired up, and he was cruising towards the nomination. By the end of Iowa, Howard Dean was toast and it was John Kerry cruising towards victory.

Could history repeat itself? Will the 2008 GOP race follow the dynamics of the 2004 Democratic race? Who is going to take the role of John Kerry? Will it be Fred Thompson, John McCain, or will Duncan Hunter suddenly rise through the ranks to take the nomination out of nowhere? (OK, so that last one isn’t going to happen.)

I have no clue, and neither do the pollsters. As much as we’d all love to know how things play out, the race is changing too fast for the polls to have much meaning. The polls give the campaigns some ammo, but if you really want to know what’s going on they’re about as good as reading tea leaves.

Is McCain The Dark Horse?

The latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll has some good news for Sen. John McCain, as it places him second in the GOP field, albeit far behind Rudy Giuliani. McCain also appears to be the Republican most likely to defeat Hillary Clinton in that poll.

Throughout this race, people have been looking for a candidate who could be a credible “dark horse” to challenge Rudy in the key primary states. First it was Fred Thompson, then Mike Huckabee, and now it’s McCain. What this tells us about the race is that it’s still wide open. While Romney seems to be winning in many of the key states and Rudy has the national advantage, anything could change between now and then. If McCain performs well in Iowa and New Hampshire (which is possible), it could give him enough momentum to knock out some of the challengers like Huckabee and get him from the second tier up to truly competitive status.

McCain’s advantages are clear: he’s a straight-talked who has appeal with independents. He’s the “maverick” who nevertheless has been one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq—based not on political expediency, but principle. At the same time, he can claim that he was against the way the war was being run, and it was only when the Administration started listening to him that things changed for the better.

His disadvantages: McCain-Feingold is (rightly, in my mind) reviled by conservatives, and he’s a squish on immigration. The campaign finance issue might be a minor roadblock, but immigration is what’s killing Sen. McCain in this race. Immigration will be a key issue, at least with GOP voters, and an advocate of the President’s non-amnesty amnesty plan is not going to be popular. The fact that McCain is willing to take an enforcement-first approach helps him, but it will take him time to persuade voters that he’s not lax on border security.

Right now, the GOP race is so fluid it’s impossible to say what would happen. There’s action on the top tier of Romney and Giuliani, and the next tier is crowded with Thompson, McCain, and Huckabee. The only thing that is for certain is that Tom Tancredo won’t be getting the nomination any time soon. It’s a free-for-all, and it may be a while before we have a firm grasp on who has the inside track for the nomination. Or, the situation may radically change and one candidate will step so far ahead that the rest cannot keep up. It’s all in the air right now, which makes any one poll only a data point and not necessarily a trend.