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EDITORIAL: Obama wins, polls lose

Surveys give a slanted view of the electoral landscape

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Either President Obama is on track for a major electoral win in November, or there is something seriously wrong with most major polls.

The economy is the worst it's been in decades for a first-term president. Growth has virtually halted, unemployment is up and federal debt is off the charts. Consumer confidence is down, and people think the country is on the wrong track by a 2-to-1 margin. Mr. Obama, once called the "most gifted political fundraiser of his generation," has been reduced to frantic appeals for cash. Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who is attracting more funds every cycle, is on track to claim the title of the "billion-dollar man." Yet somehow, the media consensus is that the Obama campaign is not only ahead in the race, but increasing its lead.

The perception problem can be tracked to the polls. A series of surveys have shown Mr. Obama with support levels far beyond what one would expect given the state of the union. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported the results of a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times swing-state poll of likely voters showing that Mr. Obama "hits the magic 50 percent mark against Gov. Mitt Romney among likely voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with wide support for his plan to hike federal income taxes on upper-income voters." The poll has Mr. Obama up six points in Florida and Ohio and 11 in Pennsylvania. That would spell a handy win for the incumbent.

On the same day, Gallup reported that Mr. Obama's approval ratings among registered voters in those states were 44-46 percent, a range that also includes solid red states like Georgia and Mississippi. There are some problems comparing the two surveys: likely versus registered voters, and voting support versus mere approval. In both cases, however, those are factors that should diminish -- not inflate -- Mr. Obama's fortunes in the New York Times poll.

Earlier this week, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reported that Mr. Obama held a 49-43 percent edge over Mr. Romney nationally. The partisan breakdown of the sample showed that 46 percent of the respondents were Democrats and only 35 percent were Republicans. A Gallup survey from July 22 showed that the partisan breakdown in the country, including leaners, is actually 45 percent Democrat and 47 percent Republican. Much of Mr. Obama's supposed six-point lead came from inflating the relative number of Democrats in the sample. NBC's political director Chuck Todd later admitted the sample was skewed, though by then the buzz had already been established that Mr. Romney was falling behind. The New York Times swing-state poll also was heavily weighted toward Democrats.

Fortunately, people have become more sophisticated about how they read the polls. Analysts and commentators examine sample sizes, sample weights and other methodological matters as soon as the numbers are released. There's also the reality that national surveys aren't the best means of tracking the race since presidential elections come down to which candidate receives 270 or more electoral votes, not who wins a nationwide poll. Most electoral votes can safely be predicted. As usual, the contest will come down to a few locations in a small number of tossup states.

In June, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel forecast that the election would be decided in "five states, 500 precincts." Those are the voters who will decide the fate of the presidency; the rest of America is just along for the ride.

The Washington Times

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