Commentary Magazine


Topic: polling

Wondering Just How Much More Damage Obama Can Do

In speaking about the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that Jonathan refers to, NBC’s White House correspondent Chuck Todd told the Morning Joe crew

This poll is a disaster for the president…. You look at the presidency here: lowest job rating, tied for the lowest; lowest on foreign policy…  Then on the issue of do you believe you can still lead, and a majority believe not. Essentially the public is saying, “Your presidency is over” by saying a number like that. Fifty-four percent saying he no longer has the ability to lead and solve problems. That’s one of those things, you’re sitting at the White House going, “Oh, wow.”

Mr. Todd is right in that the poll shows tremendous erosion in support for for the president. And I understand what he means when he says the public is saying, “Your presidency is over.” But of course that is not, alas, so. Mr. Obama is still president, and he will be for two-and-a-half more years. That’s a long time for more mischief.

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In speaking about the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that Jonathan refers to, NBC’s White House correspondent Chuck Todd told the Morning Joe crew

This poll is a disaster for the president…. You look at the presidency here: lowest job rating, tied for the lowest; lowest on foreign policy…  Then on the issue of do you believe you can still lead, and a majority believe not. Essentially the public is saying, “Your presidency is over” by saying a number like that. Fifty-four percent saying he no longer has the ability to lead and solve problems. That’s one of those things, you’re sitting at the White House going, “Oh, wow.”

Mr. Todd is right in that the poll shows tremendous erosion in support for for the president. And I understand what he means when he says the public is saying, “Your presidency is over.” But of course that is not, alas, so. Mr. Obama is still president, and he will be for two-and-a-half more years. That’s a long time for more mischief.

As we’re seeing in Iraq, the broader Middle East, and many other areas of the world, as well as here at home, even a politically weak president is showing he has the capacity to do enormous, sustained damage. And low approval ratings aren’t slowing him down all that much. He is using his executive authority and pursuing what is in many respects a lawless agenda in order to implement his vision for America.

I happen to believe the Democratic Party will suffer once again in a mid-term election because of it. But the president doesn’t really seem to care all that much. He is a progressive in a hurry. He wants to bend history in a certain direction, even if the American people aren’t inclined to go along with him.

Mr. Obama is doing much of what he set out to do. The fact that there is such a high human cost in the wake of this extraordinarily incompetent and misguided man’s presidency doesn’t appear to bother him at all. He is someone seemingly incapable of honest self-reflection, at times wholly unable to see the world as it is. Yet he continues to wield power, making one massive error after another. And the rest of us are left to wonder just how much more damage one person can do.

The answer, I fear, is quite a lot.

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Latest Defense of Nate Silver: Even When He’s Wrong, He’s Right

At this point in the election, both the national tracking polls and, generally speaking, the battleground state polls show an extremely close race. This has inspired much criticism of stat-man Nate Silver. Liberals, as Jonathan wrote recently, may be looking for a scapegoat if Barack Obama loses, and will wonder why Silver insisted that statistically Obama was an overwhelming favorite to win re-election right up to the end. Conservatives say that statistics don’t factor in momentum, that any predictive model that ignores trends should be taken with a grain of salt, and that current trends don’t back up Silver’s predictions of Obama as the heavy favorite.

Additionally, as Josh Jordan has pointed out at National Review Online, there are problems with Silver’s statistical model, which gives more weight to pro-Obama polls—even older polls—than to those showing Mitt Romney’s recent gains. Silver’s defenders respond that Silver makes no guarantees, and that giving Obama a high chance of winning doesn’t preclude the opposite outcome. This defense—essentially that no outcome can disprove Silver’s model—treads a bit too close for comfort to Chuck Klosterman’s classic rant about statistics:

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At this point in the election, both the national tracking polls and, generally speaking, the battleground state polls show an extremely close race. This has inspired much criticism of stat-man Nate Silver. Liberals, as Jonathan wrote recently, may be looking for a scapegoat if Barack Obama loses, and will wonder why Silver insisted that statistically Obama was an overwhelming favorite to win re-election right up to the end. Conservatives say that statistics don’t factor in momentum, that any predictive model that ignores trends should be taken with a grain of salt, and that current trends don’t back up Silver’s predictions of Obama as the heavy favorite.

Additionally, as Josh Jordan has pointed out at National Review Online, there are problems with Silver’s statistical model, which gives more weight to pro-Obama polls—even older polls—than to those showing Mitt Romney’s recent gains. Silver’s defenders respond that Silver makes no guarantees, and that giving Obama a high chance of winning doesn’t preclude the opposite outcome. This defense—essentially that no outcome can disprove Silver’s model—treads a bit too close for comfort to Chuck Klosterman’s classic rant about statistics:

Life is chock-full of lies, but the biggest lie is math. That’s particularly clear in the discipline of probability, a field of study that’s completely and wholly fake. When push comes to shove–when you truly get down to the core essence of existence–there is only one mathematical possibility: Everything is 50-50. Either something will happen, or something will not.

When you flip a coin, what are the odds of it coming up heads? 50-50. Either it will be heads, or it will not. When you roll a six-sided die, what are the odds that you’ll roll a three? 50-50. You’ll either get a three, or you won’t. That’s reality. Don’t fall into the childish “it’s one-in-six” logic trap. That is precisely what all your adolescent authority figures want you to believe. That’s how they enslave you. That’s how they stole your conviction, and that’s why you will never be happy. Either you will roll a three, or you will not; there are no other alternatives. The future has no memory. Certain things can be impossible, and certain things can be guaranteed–but there is no sliding scale for maybe. Maybe something will happen, or maybe it won’t….

Quasi-intellectuals like to claim that math is spiritual. They are lying. Math is not religion. Math is the antireligion, because it splinters the gravity of life’s only imperative equation: Either something is true, or it isn’t. Do or do not; there is no try.

Klosterman was being sardonic (probably?) but much of this argument over Silver’s model feels that way too. Both sides warn against putting too much stock in Silver’s model because it’s only numbers. Here is Ezra Klein’s defense of Silver:

It’s important to be clear about this: If Silver’s model is hugely wrong — if all the models are hugely wrong, and the betting markets are hugely wrong — it’s because the polls are wrong. Silver’s model is, at this point, little more than a sophisticated form of poll aggregation.

But it’s just as important to be clear about this: If Mitt Romney wins on election day, it doesn’t mean Silver’s model was wrong. After all, the model has been fluctuating between giving Romney a 25 percent and 40 percent chance of winning the election. That’s a pretty good chance! If you told me I had a 35 percent chance of winning a million dollars tomorrow, I’d be excited. And if I won the money, I wouldn’t turn around and tell you your information was wrong. I’d still have no evidence I’d ever had anything more than a 35 percent chance.

That basically boils down to: Don’t blame Silver if he’s wrong, because he’s relying on other people’s work, and no matter what happens, Silver wasn’t wrong, because he said it could happen, and it did.

If Mitt Romney wins, does that discredit Nate Silver? Only if you defied Silver’s advice, and that of his defenders, not to rely on him in the first place.

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Blowing Smoke: Dem Turnout, Not Demography is Destiny

The Obama campaign’s top leadership was out in force today, pumping up the faithful as they reassured them that President Obama was certain to be re-elected. Senior advisor David Axelrod said he would shave his trademark mustache if the president lost. Meanwhile, Campaign manager Jim Messina vowed that Democrats would turn out in even larger numbers than they did in 2008 when Obama’s hope and change mania was at its peak. While some may dismiss this as pre-election braggadocio, that’s exactly what’s going to have to happen if the president is to save Axelrod’s facial hair.

That was made clear again today with the release of several polls that seemed certain to bolster Democratic optimism. As Alana noted, a Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times poll of Ohio, Virginia and Florida showed President Obama leading in all three of the three key battleground states. The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm also released a poll in Ohio showing the president ahead. But these surveys, and just about every other poll that favored Obama, all had samples that were heavily skewed toward Democrats. Quinnipiac’s sample had seven percent more Democrats than Republicans in Florida and eight percent more in both Ohio and Virginia. PPP had whopping nine percent more Democrats. By contrast, a Roanoke College poll in Virginia had a sample of only four percent more Democrats than Republicans. Not surprisingly, that yielded a result that gave Mitt Romney a five percent lead in the state.

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The Obama campaign’s top leadership was out in force today, pumping up the faithful as they reassured them that President Obama was certain to be re-elected. Senior advisor David Axelrod said he would shave his trademark mustache if the president lost. Meanwhile, Campaign manager Jim Messina vowed that Democrats would turn out in even larger numbers than they did in 2008 when Obama’s hope and change mania was at its peak. While some may dismiss this as pre-election braggadocio, that’s exactly what’s going to have to happen if the president is to save Axelrod’s facial hair.

That was made clear again today with the release of several polls that seemed certain to bolster Democratic optimism. As Alana noted, a Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times poll of Ohio, Virginia and Florida showed President Obama leading in all three of the three key battleground states. The Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling firm also released a poll in Ohio showing the president ahead. But these surveys, and just about every other poll that favored Obama, all had samples that were heavily skewed toward Democrats. Quinnipiac’s sample had seven percent more Democrats than Republicans in Florida and eight percent more in both Ohio and Virginia. PPP had whopping nine percent more Democrats. By contrast, a Roanoke College poll in Virginia had a sample of only four percent more Democrats than Republicans. Not surprisingly, that yielded a result that gave Mitt Romney a five percent lead in the state.

It all boils down to this. Unless the president’s organization can conjure up turnout numbers on Tuesday that will match or even exceed the totals he achieved in 2008 when Democratic enthusiasm was highest and Republicans were decidedly unenthusiastic, he cannot win.

Those who defend the Democratic-leaning polls point out with justice that partisan identification is not set in stone and can change from one election cycle to another. But the gains Democrats are assuming go beyond the normal fluctuations that occur. They also contradict evidence about such affiliation over the past four years, which indicates that support for the Democrats has declined, rather than holding steady or increasing.

A better argument for the Democrats would be the slight increases in the percentage of the overall population that are minorities, a development that would tend to favor the president’s re-election. But for that to be a factor in the election, turnout of African-Americans and Hispanics (or at least those portions of the diverse Hispanic vote that favor the Democrats) would have to exceed the record numbers that took to the polls in 2008.

Once we dismiss these factors, we are faced with the plain fact that in order for the president to have the kind of advantage that Quinnipiac, PPP and other Obama-leaning polls give him, his party is going to have manufacture more Democrats than they did four years ago.

Is that possible? Yes it is. But it is also highly unlikely given the fact that 2008 was a cakewalk for Obama against a weaker Republican opponent at a time when the GOP was decidedly unenthusiastic about giving their party another four years in office.

It is far more reasonable to assume that turnout numbers will give the Democrats only a slight partisan advantage, if they get one at all. While anything can happen in an election so close, the only polls showing the president winning at either the state or national levels require a disproportionate percentage of affiliated Democrats among the likely voters surveyed. That means anything other than a repeat of Obama’s turnout wave in 2008 will ensure Mitt Romney’s election. Unless Messina and Axelrod have a ground game that can work that kind of miracle, all they are doing today is blowing smoke.

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Poll Shows Small Obama Lead in OH, FL, VA

The latest CBS News/Quinnipiac/NYT poll shows Obama leading by five points in Ohio and “effectively tied” with Romney in Virginia and Florida:

President Obama has maintained a five-point lead in the crucial swing state of Ohio, according to a new Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll of likely voters. The survey found that Mitt Romney has gained ground in Florida and Virgini

a, where the race is now effectively tied.

Mr. Obama now leads Romney 50 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in Ohio – exactly where the race stood on Oct. 22. His lead in Florida, however, has shrunk from nine points in September to just one point in the new survey, which shows Mr. Obama with 48 percent support and Romney with 47 percent. The president’s lead in Virginia has shrunk from five points in early October to two points in the new survey, which shows him with a 49 percent to 47 percent advantage.

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The latest CBS News/Quinnipiac/NYT poll shows Obama leading by five points in Ohio and “effectively tied” with Romney in Virginia and Florida:

President Obama has maintained a five-point lead in the crucial swing state of Ohio, according to a new Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll of likely voters. The survey found that Mitt Romney has gained ground in Florida and Virgini

a, where the race is now effectively tied.

Mr. Obama now leads Romney 50 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in Ohio – exactly where the race stood on Oct. 22. His lead in Florida, however, has shrunk from nine points in September to just one point in the new survey, which shows Mr. Obama with 48 percent support and Romney with 47 percent. The president’s lead in Virginia has shrunk from five points in early October to two points in the new survey, which shows him with a 49 percent to 47 percent advantage.

The poll shows the race tightening in Virginia and Florida. But keep in mind, the party identification breakdown in this poll is tilted heavily in Obama’s favor. Ed Morrissey compares the sample to the 2008 and 2010 exit polling (Democrat/Republican/Independent):

What do the samples look like? Here’s the breakdown for each state, with 2008 and 2010 exit polling in parentheses (2009 in VA’s case):

1. FL: 37/30/29 (37/34/29, 36/36/29)

1. OH: 37/29/30 (39/31/30, 36/37/28)

1. VA: 35/27/35 (39/33/27, 33/37/30)

In each of these three states, the CBS/NYT/Q-poll shows Republicans at a lower percentage level of turnout than in the 2008 election. If one makes that assumption, it’s not too difficult to be (sic) guess that Obama might be ahead. However, that’s exactly the opposite of what all other polls rating enthusiasm are telling us what the electorate will look like on Tuesday. In fact, it’s not even what this poll shows, with Republican enthusiasm +16 over Democrats in Florida, +14 in Ohio, and +7 in Virginia.

Not only is Republican enthusiasm significantly up over Democrats, an inverse of 2008, there are also early signs of turnout problems for Obama. Gallup’s poll of early voters yesterday showed Romney leading Obama 52 to 46 percent among those who have already voted (they were tied among those planning to vote before Election Day). At this point in 2008, Obama had a 10-point lead with early voters in the same poll, and a six-point lead with planned early voters.

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Obama’s Early Voting Strategy Flops?

President Obama is so invested in his campaign’s early voting strategy that he became the first sitting president to cast a ballot before election day. In case you missed the subtlety of the First Lady telling you to “vote early” on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the president has started doing his stump speech in front of a giant, fluorescent “Vote Early” sign. It’s basically his campaign motto. 

And it’s not working. According to Gallup’s latest, Romney leads Obama among voters who have already cast their ballots: 

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President Obama is so invested in his campaign’s early voting strategy that he became the first sitting president to cast a ballot before election day. In case you missed the subtlety of the First Lady telling you to “vote early” on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the president has started doing his stump speech in front of a giant, fluorescent “Vote Early” sign. It’s basically his campaign motto. 

And it’s not working. According to Gallup’s latest, Romney leads Obama among voters who have already cast their ballots: 

Romney currently leads Obama 52% to 45% among voters who say they have already cast their ballots. However, that is comparable to Romney’s 51% to 46% lead among all likely voters in Gallup’s Oct. 22-28 tracking polling. At the same time, the race is tied at 49% among those who have not yet voted but still intend to vote early, suggesting these voters could cause the race to tighten. However, Romney leads 51% to 45% among the much larger group of voters who plan to vote on Election Day, Nov. 6. 

The early voting race might tighten, but Romney still has a solid lead. Assuming Gallup’s 49%-49% split among early voters who haven’t cast a ballot yet, there would be no way for Obama to overtake Romney at this point.

Note that in 2008, Obama crushed John McCain in early voting, 58 percent to 40 percent:

The Obama campaign has some practice in this arena. With significantly more resources at its disposal than rival John McCain in 2008, it made banking early votes a top priority and deployed some smart campaign tactics to that end. Of those who cast early ballots in 2008, 58 percent favored Obama, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken just before Election Day, versus McCain’s 40 percent. 

The Gallup poll is national, and the Obama campaign will probably argue it’s the early voters in swing states that matter. But signs aren’t good for Obama in Ohio early voting, either, at least compared to his 2008 record. At Politico, Adrian Gray writes:

I have always been a believer in data telling me the full story. Truth is, nobody knows what will happen on Election Day. But here is what we do know: 220,000 fewer Democrats have voted early in Ohio compared with 2008. And 30,000 more Republicans have cast their ballots compared with four years ago. That is a 250,000-vote net increase for a state Obama won by 260,000 votes in 2008. 

Could it be that Obama’s get-out-the-vote efforts aren’t as unbeatable as we’re told?

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The Problem of Polling Intangibles

Chris Cillizza, who blogs about politics at the Washington Post, wrote a defense of the seemingly off-topic questions—such as “On a ship in a storm, who would you rather have as the captain?”–asked by the WaPo’s latest poll that I want to find convincing, but just can’t quite get there. Here is how Cillizza explains the controversy, and the Post’s justification:

The response — via Twitter, Facebook and even email (yes, people still email sometimes) — was overwhelming and (stunningly, at least to us) negative. And it went something like this: “Who cares about who the better ship captain is? This has NOTHING to do with the election.”

Ditto for other questions in the Post-ABC poll like “who do you think would be the more loyal friend” and “who would you rather take care of you when you’re sick”….

We’ve long maintained that the vote for president, more so than any other vote, is a feel vote.  That is, the up-for-grabs voters don’t simply go to the websites of the two candidates, make a check next to every issue they agree with Obama or Romney on and then add up the columns — voting for whichever of the two men had more checks to his name.  If they did, George Bush wouldn’t likely have beaten either Al Gore or John Kerry.

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Chris Cillizza, who blogs about politics at the Washington Post, wrote a defense of the seemingly off-topic questions—such as “On a ship in a storm, who would you rather have as the captain?”–asked by the WaPo’s latest poll that I want to find convincing, but just can’t quite get there. Here is how Cillizza explains the controversy, and the Post’s justification:

The response — via Twitter, Facebook and even email (yes, people still email sometimes) — was overwhelming and (stunningly, at least to us) negative. And it went something like this: “Who cares about who the better ship captain is? This has NOTHING to do with the election.”

Ditto for other questions in the Post-ABC poll like “who do you think would be the more loyal friend” and “who would you rather take care of you when you’re sick”….

We’ve long maintained that the vote for president, more so than any other vote, is a feel vote.  That is, the up-for-grabs voters don’t simply go to the websites of the two candidates, make a check next to every issue they agree with Obama or Romney on and then add up the columns — voting for whichever of the two men had more checks to his name.  If they did, George Bush wouldn’t likely have beaten either Al Gore or John Kerry.

Count me among those who believe that voters are generally rational but that the presence of some irrationality–call it instinct if you want–plays a role, especially in close elections. But here’s the thing: the WaPo/ABC poll didn’t just ask voters who they’d rather have dinner with or take care of them when they’re sick. The poll also asked… who they’re going to vote for. Now, I think the poll pretty effectively demonstrated that voters can be all over the place when it comes these questions. But if you value the ship captain question, or the loyal friend question, you have to confront the fact that it’s either a worthless barometer–or the question of who voters plan to vote for is a worthless barometer. That latter one is a pretty difficult thing for a pollster to confront.

Yet it’s hard to avoid this problem. Among likely voters, Obama wins this poll by one point, and among registered voters by six. All the other questions Cillizza is defending were asked of registered voters. Yet Obama wins the ship captain question by only three—half his advantage among registered voters when asked who they’ll vote for. Obama wins the who “would make a more loyal friend” question by fourteen points, and the “take care of you if you were sick” question by thirteen. On who voters would rather have dinner with, Obama wins by nineteen. So respondents are telling the Post that they obviously don’t care who they’d rather have dinner with, be around when they’re sick, or be friends with.

So how do we make the argument that these questions are relevant? And if we argue that these questions are relevant, don’t we have to discard the “who are you going to vote for” question? And if we discard the “who are you going to vote for” question, aren’t we kind of giving up on polling voters?

Again, there is absolutely a case to be made that a certain amount of instinct or irrationality creeps into voters’ minds when they choose a president. But there’s another name for those metrics: intangible, which Oxford defines as “unable to be touched or grasped.” It seems they are still unable to be polled, as well.

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