- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2008

If pollsters misdiagnose the condition of the American body politic, it won’t be because of a shortage of thermometers.

But while this year’s unprecedented number of voter surveys all put Democrat Barack Obama in front, his lead over Republican challenger John McCain in the presidential race ranges from a blowout of 15 percentage points in one poll to a within-the-margin-of-error three points in two others.

As underdogs have done since the modern era of polling began, the McCain campaign has seized on the most promising numbers while urging supporters on Election Day to stick it to the guys with the clipboards and the “likely voter turnout” algorithms.

“The campaign is functionally tied across the battleground states,” McCain pollster Bill McInturff insisted in a memo to the campaign released Wednesday, “… with our numbers IMPROVING sharply.”

In another favorite poll-bashing ploy, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani channeled the ghosts of Dewey and Truman to cast doubt on challenging poll numbers. In an interview on Fox News, he recalled that exit polls on Election Day 2004 had Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry defeating President Bush by eight percentage points.

“Some of this, you’ve got to go on your own gut instinct,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s pollsters and supporters insist that the polls accurately reflect the Democrat’s lead both nationally and in critical electoral states. Mr. Obama himself has sharply warned campaign aides against overconfidence because of the poll numbers. But the campaign has conceded that the race likely would tighten in the closing days.

Cherry-pickers in both campaigns have an unprecedented number of polling cherries to pick in 2008.

Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s top political aide and now a television commentator, has counted 728 national polls on the Obama-McCain race, including 215 so far this month.

“At this rate, there may be almost as many national polls in October of 2008 as there were during the entire year in 2004,” Mr. Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

Pollster.com, a Web site devoted to tracking the opinion trackers, listed 38 new state surveys and 10 new or updated national polls charting support for Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, compiled by institutions ranging from the venerable Gallup Organization to Virginia’s Roanoke College.

Mr. Obama’s favorite poll is probably the Pew Research Survey of 1,198 likely voters conducted Oct. 23 to 26, when he lead Mr. McCain by 53 percent to 38 percent. Mr. McCain and Mr. McInturff no doubt prefer the new Fox News poll of 924 likely voters that has the Republican with a deficit of 47 percent to 44 percent.

Run the varying results through the mathematical blender and the resulting poll of polls gives Mr. Obama a “rolling average” national six-point lead of 49.7 percent to 43.8 percent, according to the “Real Clear Politics” Web site.

“At the national level, the tracking surveys for the last few days do show a slight narrowing that amounts mostly to an uptick of a point or two (on average) in John McCain’s support,” according to Pollster.com analyst Mark Blumenthal. “Even if real, the slight trend implied by these national trackers is not steep enough to overtake Obama by Tuesday.”

But the broad variation in poll results has sparked another heated debate within the polling community, with technical duels about sample adjustments, the definition of a “likely voter” and the proper weighted computation of regression lines. There’s even a growing academic literature on how the exploding number of cell phones may be corrupting the old survey models that relied on reaching voters at home on their “land lines.”

Mr. Obama’s race has also revived a lively debate over the “Bradley effect” - the tendency of polls to understate the support for the white candidate in a race between candidates of different races. The concept dates to the 1982 California governor’s race, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who is black, narrowly lost to a white rival despite leading in the polls.

The existence and size of the Bradley effect in the 2008 polls is another subject of hot debate, but Mr. Blumenthal said the McCain camp clearly is betting that its support will be larger than the polls suggest, while Mr. Obama’s numbers on Election Day are unlikely to rise.

Mr. McInturff wrote in his memo that “I am becoming more and more convinced Sen. Obama ‘gets what he gets in the tracking.’”

The explosion of polls - and the commercial interests of the media organizations that sponsor them - have even factored into the candidates’ closing strategies.

Mr. Obama broadcast his 30-minute “closing argument” on the major networks Wednesday evening - six days before Election Day - in part because campaign officials concluded that press coverage from here on out would be focused on results of the latest polls.



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