The campaign for president has moved into an anxious phase for political junkies: A lot is going on, but nothing is really happening. Mitt Romney has largely consolidated support among his Republican base, matching the support that President Obama has among Democrats. Now, the two sides are testing the messages they will deploy with increasing intensity over the next five months as they seek to motivate their supporters and woo the undecided few.
All that produces a lull in political news, which gets filled with pseudo-events and polls – lots of polls. Reading polling data can make a person smarter about politics – or dumber. Herewith, a few hints about how to achieve the former.
- Don’t forget the limits of national polls. Presidential elections get fought out state-by-state in the electoral college, but most public polls are conducted nationwide because polling all the battleground states individually is too expensive.
National polls do provide useful information – after all, the winner of the popular vote nationwide has won the electoral college all but twice in U.S. history. But they can also obscure important movement at the state level.
A good example of state-level variation came this week with the Democratic primary results in Arkansas and Kentucky, where Obama barely won 60% of the vote against a little-known lawyer in the former and “uncommitted” in the latter. The results, like those in West Virginia and Oklahoma earlier this year, are a reminder of how deep the anti-Obama feeling runs in many solidly red states. The lopsided nature of the vote in those states probably lowers the president’s standing in national polls by a bit. If so, he can be expected to do somewhat better in battleground states than the national numbers imply – a tendency that shows up in some recent state-by-state polls.
- Don’t obsess about small shifts in those horse-race numbers. Right now, Obama v. Romney is a close election, and it’s likely to be that way right down to election day. That’s about all the national horse-race figures are likely to tell us for the next few months. The numbers will bounce around from week to week, and “analysts” will come up with reasons to explain the “movement,” much of which is caused by nothing more than the natural variations of any statistical sample.