“Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?” –Robert Orben
Thanks to the media, we know that Mitt Romney has fallen on bad times. A tape of him purportedly disparaging half of America in private back in May came to light last week, his 2011 tax returns showed a doctored 14% effective rate (both of which are already fueling attack ads), and people are increasingly wondering whether he can pull this off. Against this backdrop I got an email about fresh Washington Post numbers showing Obama leading in the key swing states of Ohio and my native Florida. A recent poll in Virginia gave similarly good news to Democrats.
Yet perhaps the devil is in the numbers. In each of these new polls, Democratic and/or Independent voters were oversampled compared even to 2008, let alone 2004. In Ohio, Tyrian gem of the Midwest, 39% of 2008 voters were self-proclaimed Democrats, compared to 31% Republicans and 30% Independents. In 2004, the D-R-I split in Ohio was 35-40-25. Compare those numbers to this week’s poll split of 35-26-35. For whatever reason, the poll authors seem to expect an unusually low GOP turnout, despite sweeping Republican successes in 2010, coupled with an unusually high Independent showing and a more or less stable Democrat presence.
The differences between polls and history are even more striking with the Purple States in the South. In 2008, Virginia’s electoral votes went Democrat for the first time since Lyndon Johnson. By 2009, the Commonwealth had two Democratic U.S. senators, a majority-Democrat delegation in Congress and the state senate, and a sitting Democratic governor who would serve as Chairman of the Democratic Party. It is perhaps not a stretch to say this is as Democratic as Virginia has been in a generation or two.
Then three years of subsequent elections happened. In 2012, Virginia has a majority-Republican delegation to the U.S. House (including the House Majority Leader), prominent Republican officials in elected state office, a Republican-controlled General Assembly, and popular Republican governor who doubles as Chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. In light of all this, you would be forgiven for wondering how a 39-33-27 D-R-I split in the 2008 election becomes a 32-24-35 split in a 2012 poll. Or how a 2008 breakdown of 37-34-29 in Florida has likewise “evolved” into 35-25-32 in this week’s polling.
Of course, there could be a good apology for this particular devil. Maybe Democrats and Independents are substantially more energized than Republicans in this cycle or in 2008. Maybe the wording of the questions in the polls skews actual beliefs. Maybe people are just bad at remembering their Party affiliations. Who knows? The presidential race will certainly be hard-fought and hard-won by whoever emerges victorious. But for now, if I were a Very Important Person in this year’s Republican campaigns, I wouldn’t buy the hype.
I’m excited for the debates.