Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Poll Tax

This morning the pundits are once again falling all over themselves about a new set of poll numbers that show Obama leading or tied in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. The bombastic Joe Scarborough declared that the race is over if Obama were to win those states (really? what a shock, Joe). These are the same pundits who just two weeks ago proclaimed that Obama was in serious trouble and that McCain seemed the likely winner. There are now so many polls that you can literally come up with any outcome that you would like. There are a number of sites that track the Electoral votes based on the polls and you while this week they have swung back in Obama's favor, you can certainly find sites that are projecting a McCain win based on the polls.

There are a number of factors that make polling an unreliable predictor of what will happen, but the most glaring of these is the fact that the election is still a month and a half away. I understand that the talking heads on TV have to have something to talk about every day and the seemingly endless polling gives them a topic to fixate on. The truth of the matter is that the polls pretty much show the race at exactly the same point as it was before the conventions. During that three week stretch, the polls bounced wildly between Obama and McCain. At one point Obama was up by as much as 8 points and then a week and a half later was behind by 10 points (according to Gallup). Now Obama appears to have a national lead of somewhere between one and three points. According to the pollsters, 20% of Americans have changed their decision on who they would vote for three times in the past month. I simply don't believe that there is that kind of volatility in the American electorate. In fact, I've never met anyone who is so malleable that they would change their vote as often as they change the toilet paper in the bathroom.

It is the mythical "undecided" voter who is supposedly responsible for the massive swings in the poll numbers. What I would like a poll to show me is exactly who this undecided voter is and what exactly it is they are undecided about. That would actually provide me with some useful information. In my opinion, constant polling (by every organization who has the money to commission one) feeds into the narrative of a volatile electorate. The news shows tell us every night just how changeable the situation is and they point to the polls to back up that story. It really is like one feeds the other. The news shows can always find a poll to back up their story. They cross reference different polls to illustrate whatever point it is they are trying to make. According to a Lifetime Network poll (Lifetime is doing polls now. What's next, the Food Network?), 42% of Hillary Clinton voters are not supporting Barack Obama. According to the Pew Institute that number is actually 22%, according to ABC 28%. This morning, Hillary Clinton was asked about the fact that four out of ten of her supporters are not voting for Barack Obama. A clear example of cherry picking a poll (and without a doubt the least reliable of the bunch) to back up a narrative.

I once said that momentum was the ultimate lie in politics, but I'm beginning to think that polls may now hold the top spot. I have never met an undecided voter. I have met people who didn't want to tell me who they were voting for because they didn't want me to form an opinion based on the answer, but I have never met an honest to goodness undecided voter. The fact that the undecideds/swing voter/independent voter has been getting so much attention this year is influencing more to claim that status. I myself am a registered Independent, but I am not a undecided voter. To me, the candidates positions on the issues are very clear and I can't imagine anyone actually who has actually paid attention for more than a minute is unaware of those positions. The decision should be fairly easy unless there are other factors that are influencing a voter that have nothing to do with the issues. Given McCain's age and Obama's race, we clearly have a unique situation, but I still don't think that would lead to such massive swings in the poll numbers. Obama has been black since the beginning of the campaign and McCain has been old since, well, he's just old.

The most recent polls say that this in once again Obama's election to lose. Of course, If you combine all the negative numbers that have come out on Obama (42% of Hillary voters won't vote for him, 30% of voters won't vote for him because of racial bias, 60% think he's less qualified for the job than McCain, 25% think his wife is un-American) then he really shouldn't have a chance to compete with McCain come November. However, if you give me enough time, I can come up with a poll that says the exact opposite.

1 comment:

SJ said...

I think you're being generous in bringing up McCain's age as a possible factor versus Obama's race as a handicap in the minds of voters. Those factors are hardly on equal footing in the American imagination. After all, the civil war wasn't fought because the South was enslaving old people.