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Obama Poll Surge Doesn’t Jibe With Democrats’ Registration Decline

Many Republicans are not buying the numbers produced by national polls in the last few weeks that show President Obama padding his lead over Mitt Romney. Some of this sentiment can be put down to wishful thinking by conservatives who can’t fathom why so many Americans want to re-elect Obama. It is only human nature that we tend to think polls that verify our views of the way things should be are credible while dismissing those that contradict as bogus. Indeed, with the president taking the lead in so many national as well as swing state polls recently it is difficult to argue that the race hasn’t shifted in his direction. However, there are those, such as former Bill Clinton advisor/pollster and current pundit Dick Morris, who have consistently argued that the polls are wrong because their turnout model is incorrect. Morris believes that all of their numbers reflect a belief that the Democrats will be able to match their historic turnout they achieved in 2008, something he argues is not remotely likely to happen.

Morris’s argument was widely dismissed as mere spin by a conservative-leaning analyst, but recent reports showing a huge decline in Democratic registration when compared to four years ago should give even the most sanguine liberals some food for thought. As Fox News reports, several studies have shown that the number of voters declaring themselves to be Democrats has dipped precipitately in swing states, particularly in Ohio. The same is true, as I noted back in July, in Pennsylvania. That leaves us with a conundrum. If, as even left-wing think tanks agree, Democratic voter registration is in decline, why are pollsters assuming that the electorate will largely resemble the messianic “hope and change” outpouring that elected Barack Obama? And if they are wrong about the turnout model, does that mean their forecasts showing the president cruising to re-election are also incorrect?

While all polls are merely a snapshot of public opinion at a given moment, the registration numbers can’t be debated. Voter registration in Ohio is down by 490,000 from 2008 when, as was the case around the country, there was a flood of young and minority first-time voters eager to elect the first African American to the presidency. That decline in Ohio appears to be largely concentrated in the three largest counties that contain urban cities like Cleveland, where Democrats predominate. That same trend is reflected elsewhere. As Fox notes:

Ohio is not alone. An August study by the left-leaning think tank Third Way showed that the Democratic voter registration decline in eight key swing states outnumbered the Republican decline by a 10-to-one ratio. In Florida, Democratic registration is down 4.9 percent, in Iowa down 9.5 percent. And in New Hampshire, it’s down 19.7 percent.

Does this mean that the polls that show Obama ahead are, by definition, wrong? Not necessarily. After all, the president may be gaining among independents, something that the Fox story points out may be driven by Obama’s support for the auto industry bailout. It is also true, as liberal analyst Nate Silver pointed out last night in a New York Times blog that was intended to answer conservative skeptics about the Obama surge:

Party identification is not a hard-and-fast demographic characteristic like race, age or gender. Instead, it can change in reaction to news and political events from the party conventions to the Sept. 11 attacks. Since changes in public opinion are precisely what polls are trying to measure, it would defeat the purpose of conducting a survey if pollsters insisted that they knew what it was ahead of time.

If the focus on “oversampling” and party identification is misplaced, however, FiveThirtyEight does encourage a healthy skepticism toward polling. Polling is difficult, after all, in an era in which even the best pollsters struggle to get 10 percent of households to return their calls — and then have to hope that the people who do answer the surveys are representative of those who do not.

It seems reasonable to assume that turnout in 2012 will not be fueled by the same passion that drove his 2008 campaign and that Republicans will not have the same advantage they had in 2010 when discouraged Democrats stayed home and the Tea Party revolution powered the GOP to an equally historic victory. The decline in Democrat registration would seem to back up these conclusions.

A biased media may have exacerbated Romney’s recent difficulties but it would be absurd to deny that he has lost ground. To assume that all the polls are wrong may be wishful thinking by conservatives. But blind faith in their accuracy on the part of Democrats might be equally foolish. The turnout models may have baked in a pro-Obama bias that makes Romney’s plight look worse than it really is. Should the president start to widen his lead, that skewing of the numbers won’t be that meaningful. But if Romney uses a strong debate performance to turn the tide and the race tights back up, then it will be important.

Just as Republicans must guard against indulging in fantasies that reflect their desires rather than reality, so, too, must Democrats understand that if they allow a poorly constructed poll model to feed their overconfidence, they may regret it on Election Day.