Commentary Magazine


Are Democratic Voters Surging?

The blizzard of polls that emerged yesterday afternoon had morphed into an Obama avalanche by the time dinnertime rolled around. Surveys at the national and state level disagreed with the results of the two daily tracking polls, Gallup and Rasmussen, which show a tied race around 47 percent. Every other survey, with the exception of one in New Hampshire, showed Barack Obama ahead, and in most cases ahead outside the margin of error. That includes polls of the swing states Mitt Romney has to win if he is to prevail in November.

I said yesterday afternoon that the polls suggested Obama was ahead, but by a little, not a lot. How does that conclusion stand after the data onslaught?

Look, when every poll but two points in the same direction, it would be madness to say signs point to the opposite. Clearly, Obama is leading, and maybe by more than a little. More damaging for Romney’s prospects is the fact that the lead is either stable or strengthening in those battleground states.

Or is it?

The only reason to think it isn’t strengthening goes to one common feature these Obama-friendly polls share—a surge in the number of Democrats ready or likely to vote over the past month. Take Wisconsin, where two polls gave Obama great comfort. The Quinnipiac survey showed Obama gaining 4 percentage points over its survey last month. But that gain was the direct result of the fact that the number of Democrats polled was also up by 4 percentage points.

Even more telling was the Marquette University poll in Wisconsin, which showed Obama up a staggering 11 points since its last take—as a result of including 10 percent more Democrats in the survey.

Quinnipiac’s survey of Virginia featured a Democratic advantage of 11 points—a vast increase in the number of Democrats surveyed in previous tallies.

Some political observers would ask: What’s the issue? Democrats have outnumbered Republicans in every presidential year but one (2004) from time immemorial. That advantage has typically been around 4 percent. But exit polls in 2008 showed a Democratic advantage of a staggering 8 points. So why aren’t these 2012 poll results simply to be accepted?

Simple. We have solid, data-driven reasons to think 2008 was an unprecedented moment that will not be replicated this year. Put Bush fatigue, the Wall Street meltdown, the Obama novelty phenomenon, and a terrible GOP candidate in a blender and you get the 2008 Obama froth.

What would cause such a surge this year? Two thirds of the country says we’re on the wrong track.

That’s a wipeout-for-Obama number, not a number suggesting that Obama will match or better his result in 2008.

And bettering his result is what many of these surveys anticipate. In ’08, Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 6 percent—not 11, as the Marquette poll would have it in its present survey. Or 9, as Pew would have it.

But why would his result even remain close to the same? Just two years ago, there was a GOP surge leading to a 63 seat gain in the House of Representatives. Nationwide, the vote percentages from 2008 flipped. In ’08. Obama won 53-46; the GOP nationally won 53 percent of the vote in ’10. The 8-point Democratic advantage of ’08 declined into an even split—from 39D-32R to 35-35.

How could Obama get back to 2008 levels only two years later when conditions are not much improved, if at all, for him or the country?

The obvious riposte is that the presidential-year electorate is much larger and more varied than a midterm electorate. In 2010, 90 million people voted. In 2012, we can expect somewhere between 130-140 million. That’s a big difference, but it’s not a colossal difference.

Let’s assume every one of those 90 million people votes this year—a proper assumption, as midterm voters are extremely engaged politically. That would constitute something like 60 percent of the 2012 electorate. Imagine that they all were to vote the same partisan way in 2012. This would be like saying it’s election night and Bret Baier is already intoning, “With 60 percent of the vote counted, Mitt Romney leads Barack Obama by seven points.”

If that were to happen, it would be time to call the election for Romney. Almost certainly, it won’t. All the evidence suggests a measurable number of people who voted GOP in 2010 will vote for Obama in 2012. None of them, pretty much, will be Republicans, more than nine of ten of whom will vote for Romney. Nine of ten Democrats will vote for Obama.

So everyone who switches will be an independent. Independent voters swung harder and faster in 2010 than at any time in the nation’s history—from supporting Obama by 18 percent to supporting Republican candidates by 8 percent, a shift of an astonishing 25 percent. Obviously, people that fickle will bounce around some. But are they really going to swing back in numbers sufficient to hand Obama the kind of victory the polls are presaging? For what reason?

And talk about independents in this way doesn’t explain why it would be that Democrats would suddenly awaken from a three-year slumber and begin to feel like it was 2008 all over again. It could be happening. But shouldn’t something other than a good speech by Bill Clinton be responsible for such a thing? Romney’s inability to score any higher than 47 percent in any poll is certainly a sign he’s not making the sale—but whatever his weaknesses, it seems unlikely he’s the cause of a mad rush to ensure he doesn’t get the White House.

These are the reasons to be reasonably skeptical—not dismissive, not conspiratorial about motive, but reasonably skeptical—about the margins by which these polls are bolstering and boosting Obama. They appear to anticipate an electorate on November 6 that is more Democratic and Obama-friendly than is likely to be the case.

The Romney people should not be skeptical, though. They ought to believe it. They ought to think they’re behind, because they are; and they ought to think they’re farther behind than they are, because that is the only way they will experience the urgency they need to show to change the trajectory of this race.

Perhaps they, like their excessively calm candidate, haven’t quite reckoned with the degree of public humiliation and outright scorn that will be hurled in their faces and the damage that will be done to their professional reputations if Romney loses a race he should have won.

They, like Romney, have every reason to fear such a result and to act dramatically to prevent it. And they have an obligation to the 60-million-plus people who will vote for them, and who believe the country’s future is at stake, not to let this all dribble away.

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