Published September 27, 2012
In the 2012 race for the White House President Obama is ahead, but the polls are misleading.
It seems that each new poll brings good news for Obama. He’s up six points nationally according to the latest Bloomberg numbers. Gallup’s weekly tracker has the president up six as well. And it looks like crucial swing states are going for Obama in a big way: the latest Quinnipiac poll gives Obama a nine point edge in Florida, a 10 point advantage in Ohio and a 12 point lead in Pennsylvania.
To be sure, Obama is ahead in this race. But by how much has become a serious point of contention and one that deserves further examination.
Republicans and Democrats alike have honed in on the fact that recent media polls are oversampling Democrats. Indeed, we have seen many polls that are heavily skewed. There was the Washington Post/ABC poll that had a +9 Democrat skew in late August. There was the Marquette poll for Wisconsin from two weeks ago with a D+8 sample. And the newest swing state poll from Quinnipiac gave Obama a spread between Democrats and Republicans that was even greater than the historic Democrat advantage in 2008, a seven point spread between voters identifying themselves as Democrats or Republicans at 39 percent to 32 percent, in each state they polled.
In a recent interview, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse made the argument that these mainstream polls are skewed in favor of Obama. “I don’t think [the polls] reflect the composition of what 2012 is going to look like,” he said.
In order to address this, some conservative outlets have taken matters into their own hands. One website, www.unskewedpolls.com, has begun reweighting mainstream polls to more closely track the demographic assumptions that the conservative leaning Rasmussem Reports uses. The results have been staggering: the re-weighted polls all put Romney ahead of Obama with margins of between 3 and 11 points. If one looks at the Real Clear Politics average Obama is currently up four percent over Romney. But according to UnSkewedPolls.com, Romney has a 7.8 percent edge on Obama.
The expectation by mainstream pollsters is that the turnout in 2012 will be the same, if not better, for Democrats as it was in 2008.
There was a seven-point increase in the party identification gap between 2004 and 2008 nationally, which was the largest shift in a generation. If you look at individual swing state results from 2008 you see a different story in certain cases like Florida where exit polls show a Democratic skew of just D+3. Pennsylvania and Ohio were similar to the national result at D+7 and D+8, but these figures are still less than pollsters are sampling. The Quinnipiac poll skew was D+9 in Florida and D+11 in Ohio – a substantive difference from using 2008 as a predictor.
The assumption the pollsters are making that turnout in 2008 will be the same and even better for Obama than in 2008 is flawed. Not only are we looking at a terrible economic situation, but there will be key differences in turnout from 2008 that will affect the results and the accuracy of these polls.
Democratic registration may be overstated. It is my belief that many weak Obama voters are saying that they are Democrats when they really aren’t partisans at all: they are disillusioned with American politics. What this means is that these people aren’t even certain to vote in November and if they stay home, Obama’s numbers will surely be affected.
Additionally, fewer young people will turn out at the polls this year. As evidenced by Obama’s push to mobilize the youth vote, a group that he won handily in 2008, demonstrates, this is a key group that is becoming increasingly apathetic and is apt to turn out in fewer numbers.
Even so, these differences do not mean that the Democrat skew in the electorate is a total misrepresentation of the electorate today. While the seven-point bulge from 2008 is too large for this election, there is most likely to be a three to five point skew to the Democrats.
If you look at the results of these polls and account for the average three point margin of error and take another 2-3 points from Obama’s number to account for the overstated Democrat skew, you still have Obama ahead by anywhere between two and four points.
What’s more, Obama’s job approval rating has been 50 percent or higher in each of the last four Gallup daily tracking figures and now 50 percent of registered voters prefer him in the election. Crossing the 50 percent threshold is a crucial indicator of an incumbent’s chances at reelection and shows that things are shifting in Obama’s favor.
To be sure, Obama is in the lead. The polls are oversampling Democrats, but he remains ahead. But it is also a lead that should not be exaggerated. The race is not over yet and the debates beginning next week will be a decisive test for both the president and Governor Romney.