Saturday's Gallup tracking poll revealed two big numbers for Obama. Obama hit 50% in the tracking poll and took an 8% lead over McCain. This isn't the first time that Obama has hit the 50% mark, and it isn't the first time he has held a lead of 8%; but now we are in the last month of the campaign and numbers like these in October usually mean electoral success in November.
Using Gallup's compendium of presidential trial heat polling since 1936, I counted16 candidates who received 50% support or higher in an October Gallup poll. Hitting the 50% mark was a very good predictor of victory. Of those 16 candidates, just two failed to win the general election--Al Gore and Thomas Dewey.
An 8% lead has also been difficult for trailing candidates to overcome. Only one candidate who held a lead of at least 8% in October ended up losing the election--once again, that was Al Gore in 2000. There were thirteen other occasions since 1936 where a candidate had an 8% lead or greater in at least one October poll, and in each case that candidate won.
While the history doesn't look good for Republicans, the McCain campaign can take some solace from 2000. In that campaign, Gore's support reached as high as 51% (and he had a 10% lead over Bush) early in October. However, he quickly lost that lead after the first debate and Bush actually built his own 13% lead in a late October Gallup poll. This was the only time that both candidates reached 50% and held a lead of at least 8% in October Gallup polls--yet another way in which the 2000 election was truly unique. The McCain campaign will have to hope they can duplicate Bush's 2000 comeback rather than go on to defeat like the other 13 candidates who found themselves behind by 8% in October.
NOTE: Mark Blumenthal emailed to point out that the 2000 Gallup tracking poll was highly volatile in 2000 and it may be the case that this volatility was at least partly responsible for both Gore and Bush hitting 50% (and for both taking 8% leads) during October that year.
The pace of new polls finally slowed a bit on Friday. We entered just six new statewide surveys yesterday, and coincidentally, all were from states currently classified as "toss-up" or "lean" on our map. Although none of the new polls changed our classifications, leaving Obama leading by the same 250 to 163 electoral vote margin on our map as yesterday, we see continuing evidence of movement in the Democrat's direction.
The new surveys show the same pattern we have seen all week. Of those that track prior surveys in September, all but one of the statewide surveys and four of the five national trackers show movement in Obama's direction.
The new polls nudge our statewide estimates in Obama's direction in New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania, and in McCain's direction in Minnesota. Note that the polls of the last week have flipped from showing either a tie or McCain ahead to Obama ahead in five states -- Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia -- although the margins in all five states remain very close and very much in the toss-up category.
Nate Silver highlights a good point made by Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) good point about Minnesota, the one state where a new poll from SurveyUSA shows movement to McCain. Moulitsas published television advertising data showing McCain outspending Obama by a three-to-one margin ($202,000 to $66,000 -- he didn't specify the time period or the source). Elsewhere in the battleground states, Obama's spending advantage approaching three to one.
Finally, note that we see continuing movement on our national trend chart. Obama's advantage as of this writing is 7 points (49.6% to 42.6%).
Yesterday's new polls, which of course were all fielded before last night's debate, continue to show evidence of the gains made by the Obama-Biden ticket over the last week. We logged 18 new statewide and 9 new national surveys. None produced a shift in status on our map, but most indicate a trend to Obama.
11 of the 12 new statewide tracking polls that updated results collected earlier in September showed movement in Obama's direction.
Our trend estimates improved slightly for Obama in 9 of 11 of the battleground states that we currently classify as either toss-up or leaning to one of the candidates.
The Democrats also continue to show progress on national surveys. Three of the five daily tracking polls (from Gallup, Rasmussen and Battleground/GWU) clicked up for Obama yesterday, while two (Diageo/Hotline and Daily Kos/Research2000) were unchanged. In addition, we logged four new national surveys yesterday and all four showed slight increases for Obama and Biden. Our national trend chart showed Obama leading by 5.6 points as of this morning (49.2% to 43.6%), which is larger than an any previous margin shown by the trend-line during 2008.
CNN and CBS, the two networks that released surveys immediately after the presidential debate last week, have done the same for the Vice Presidential debate. Presumably, the methodologies are comparable to those used on Friday. Their online reports are not yet online, but by the magic of TiVo, I managed to get the results off the air. [Update: Both reports are now available -- I added links below].
CNN conducted a telephone survey among previously interviewed respondents who planned to watch the debate:
51% said Biden "did the best job," compared to 36% for Palin.
64% said Biden did better than they expected, 14% said he did worse than expected, 20% said he did the same as they expected.
84% said Palin did better than they expected, 7% said he did worse than expected, 8% said she did the same as they expected.
Asked before the debate if Sarah Palin is "qualified to be president," 42% said yes and 54% said no. After the debate, 46% said yes and 53% said no.
CBS again followed up with a survey of uncommitted voters (those totally undecided or who say they might still change their minds) using the Knowledge Networks nationally representative online panel:
46% said Biden won the debate, 21% said Palin won, 33% saw it as a tie.
18% of these originally uncommitted voters made up their minds to support Obama, 10% made up their minds to support McCain, 71% were still uncommitted.
53% said their opinion of Joe Biden changed for the better, 5% for the worse and 42% said their opinion did not change
55% said their opinion of Sarah Palin changed for the better, 14% for the worse and 30% said their opinion did not change
So two surveys say viewers thought Biden won, although neither broadcast indicated how partisans or independents within their samples reacted. We will have to wait for their online reports to learn more.
However, for now, consider this reality check from a debate held 20 years ago this week. Most of us remember the famous line delivered by Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen to Republican VP nominee Dan Quayle on October 5, 1988: "Senator, You're No Jack Kennedy." Twenty years ago, CBS News conducted a panel-back telephone survey using a methodology similar to that used by CNN tonight. Here are the results I found in the archives (subs. req'd.) of the The Hotline:
50% thought Bentsen won, 27% thought Quayle won (only 44% of Republicans gave it to Quayle, 23% to Bentsen).
Before the debate, 37% said Quayle was "qualified to be president," while 52% said they "would be worried." After the debate, 47% said Quayle was qualified, 48% said they would be worried.
Support for Michael Dukakis rose from 43% to 46% during the debate among those who watched; support for George H. W. Bush was unchanged at 51%
A similar survey conducted immediately after the debate by ABC News showed Bentsen winning 51% to 27%.
Now look at the chart the Charles Franklin put together featuring the results of all of the horse-race polls conducted during the 1988 campaign. Again, the debate was held on October 5. The second presidential debate between Bush and Dukakis washeld on October 13. During early October, support for Bush was increasing. Dan Quayle may have lost the debate, but it mattered little to the decisions voters were making.
So don't be surprised if last night's debate makes little difference to voters' preferences.
In the last 24 hours, we have logged 12 new national polls and 19 new statewide surveys (and that doesn't count 3 new "pre-debate" snapshots also released yesterday by Quinnipiac University) . Ten (10) of the statewide polls and 10 of the national surveys tracked results from prior surveys conducted since September 1. The result?
8 of the 10 statewide tracks showed movement in Obama's direction.
7 of the 10 of the national updates showed movement in Obama's direction.
We logged new polls in 7 of the states we currently classified as toss-up or lean, and our estimates in all 7 states moved in Obama's direction.
The new polls were enough to nudge Pennsylvania (and its 21 electoral votes) back to lean Obama, and Missouri (11) to toss-up, changing our electoral vote count to 250 for Obama, 163 for McCain and 125 in the toss-up category.
The only consolation for Republicans in yesterday's results were that the daily national tracking polls were relatively stable as compared to the previous day's results. The DailyKos/Research2000 track showed a slight gain for Obama, the Gallup Daily and Diageo/Hotline polls showed a slight decline. The GWU Battleground poll showed a four point net shift to Obama, but it was likely the result of a change in their weighting procedure.
Of all the results yesterday, the most consequential are from Florida. Three new polls, from CNN/Time, Suffolk University and Quinnipiac University (plus a fourth pre-convention snapshot from Quinnipiac) all showed Obama leading by margins of 4 to 8 percentage points. As a result, our usually conservative trend estimate shifted a remarkable 2.6 points in Obama's direction. Although we still classify Florida as a toss-up, Obama currently leads by about a point (47.7% to 46.6%).
Incidentally, before the release of the CNN and Suffolk polls, I received a number of emails asking about the trustworthiness of the Quinnipiac polls. One thing to keep in mind is that our new charts allow you to compare the trend-line for any individual pollster to the overall trend, so you can make your own judgements about whether a particular pollster typically gets different results than the others.
Try this with the chart above: At the end of the trendlines, two of the red dots at the bottom right corner represent the McCain percentage on the two most recent Quinnipiac polls. The blue dot in the upper right corner is the latest CNN/Time percentage for Obama. Click on these dots and you can connect-the-dots for each pollster. How does the pollster trend line compare to our overall trend estimate? And here's one more option. To see the relationship more clearly you might want to click through to the full Florida chart, and use the "choices" tool to display only the Obama or McCain trendline.
Incidentally, Marc Ambinder asked yesterday whether "the polls ever swung this much, this late, and NOT swung back?" Given that so little about the last year has been typical, I'm not sure why we would expect the next five weeks to be any different, however, here are two ways to try to answer that question: First, back before the conventions, we collected poll data for prior presidential elections going back to 1980, and Charles Franklin produced charts showing the trend in the margins for each election. Very few showed much movement in October. It is also worth examining Gallup's remarkable collection of trial-heat trend charts dating back to 1936.
Second, check out Brian Schaffner's post here last night, in which he examines the potential for McCain to come back by winning over the remaining undecided (their ranks are narrowing) or by converting Obama supporters (past panel studies have shown that 95+% of supporters in September stick with that choice on Election Day).
With Obama taking a clear lead in the national polls with about a month left in the campaign, the question on most minds is whether McCain will be able to make an October comeback and win the election. The problem that McCain faces is that an increasing share of the electorate is committing to one of the candidates at this point, and recent history indicates that few are likely to change their minds.
This is an obvious point, but If McCain is going to get back in this race, he can do so in one of two ways: (1) he can win over undecideds or (2) he can change the minds of those who are currently planning on voting for Obama.
Let's look at the first point. I created the chart below using the super-cool new flash tool that Pollster.com rolled out last week. This chart shows the Pollster.com trend for undecided respondents. At the end of August, the undecided trend was around 10%. By October 1st, that number dropped to just above 5%.
Presently, Obama holds a 5.6% margin over McCain in the Pollster.com trend. Thus, even if you allocated every undecided voter to McCain, it still wouldn't be enough for him to overtake Obama (though it would certainly make for a very close race).
Of course, it is highly unlikely that all of the undecideds will go for McCain, so what about the second option--changing the minds of Obama voters? It turns out that in recent elections, it has been fairly difficult to change peoples' minds in October. The National Election Study conducts a panel survey of voters for each presidential election; they interview respondents face-to-face (no cell phone only problem here) in September and October and then re-interview them after the election. This allows us to get a sense of how common it is for citizens to change their minds in the last month of a campaign. I pulled out the respondents the NES interviewed in September of 2000 and 2004 and the results are in the table below. The columns are the vote preferences expressed by respondents during the September interviews and the rows are the candidates that they actually reported voting for when they were re-interviewed after the election.
In 2004, 94.5% of those who intended to vote for Kerry in September reported having stuck with their choice after the election, compared to 95.7% of those intending to vote for Bush who actually did so. The percentages of those sticking with their candidate are just slightly lower in 2000, but the overwhelming pattern here is that very few voters seem to change their minds in October. In 2004, 4.2% of Kerry supporters changed their minds in October and voted for Bush. Even if McCain manages to get that many defectors, it would only improve his standing by about 2% in the polls (UPDATE: This would also cost Obama 2% in the polls, thereby trimming 4% off Obama's margin). But that assumes that there won't be any defections away from his candidacy. What actually happened in the past two elections is that what few defectors there were largely canceled each other out.
What is also striking is that even people who aren't firmly committed to a candidate appear to end up voting for that candidate in November. The chart below divides respondents into those who said that they were "strong" supporters of their candidate before the election or "not strong" supporters. In the last two elections, at least 80% of the weaker supporters of a candidate stayed with that candidate on election day.
The patterns among individual voters are also evident when you look at the aggregate trends in recent presidential elections. You can see this if you look at the charts from Mark's "convention bump" post in August. In 1980, 2000, and 2004, there was virtually no movement in the polls during the final month of the campaign. In 1988, Bush added a little to his lead in October and in 1996 Dole gained some modest ground on Clinton, but in neither case did the October gains make a difference in the outcome. In 1992, Bush gained significantly on Clinton in October, but attracting supporters from the third party candidacy of Perot may have accounted for some of those gains. In any event, Bush still fell short.
Despite the fact that McCain is only down by 5-7% nationally, time is running out and a comeback seems like a tall order. In the new era of partisan polarization, major October shifts in the presidential polls are unlikely. There are few undecided voters left to persuade at this point and in recent elections we've seen that few voters change their minds once they have settled on a candidate.
My NationalJournal.com column, on whether pollsters should be weighting by age, and if so, to what value, is now online. It follows on last night's post on changing weighting of the GWU Battleground survey.
Two pieces of added context. First, yesterday I emailed a handful of national pollsters to ask about the age compositions of their samples, and I got quick responses from those listed below. The table includes the estimates of 2004 turnout from both exit polls and the U.S. Census Current Population Survey (CPS). See my column for more discussion of the 2004 estimates. Note that most pollsters report on the percentage of 18-29-year-olds, which is included below:
Second, I want to re-post the very helpful graphic produced by the Pew Research Center last year that shows how how the rise of cell-phone only households has dramatically affected the ability of pollsters to reach younger respondents when relying on random samples of land-line telephones. The percentage of 18-34 year olds in Pew's un-weighted national samples declined by roughly ten percentage points between 2002 and 2006 -- the same time period in which the percentage of adults living in wireless only households has grown from 3% to 12% (I originally posted this chart as part of an entry last year on cell phones and their impact on political surveys).
I totally neglected to link to this -- apologies for that: Charles Franklin and I are joining Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com for a live chat on WashingtonPost.com. The chat starts right now (noon Eastern Time) but should be available for review afterwards.
We have logged another dozen new statewide polls in the last 24 hours. Eight of these represent updates since the previous week or mid-September, and seven of the eight show movement toward Obama or away from McCain. Although none of the shifts were large enough to cause a change in status, the new surveys narrowed McCain's lead on our trend estimates by at least a half a percentage point in Ohio (+0.8), Florida (+0.6) and Indiana (+0.5).
The continuing movement in Obama's direction is evident on both the national and "all state poll" trend lines on the national forces chart (although Professor Franklin updated these mid-day yesterday.
We missed doing a "poll update" on the GWU Battleground Poll today, partly because we did not receive the usual PDF via email with the daily results. The results flipped on that survey flipped today from the 1-2% lead that they had been showing for John McCain for the last seven releases to a two-point Obama advantage (48% to 46%).
The difference is explained at the bottom of the slide in the PDF. "On 9/29 - Weighting changed from Party ID, Race, and Age to Race and Age." So according to the graphic, they stopped weighting by party identification on today's release. Does that explain the reversal in vote preferences? By all appearances, it does.
I talked separately today to both Republican Ed Goeas earlier today, and his Democratic counterpart Celinda Lake, the two pollsters who oversee the Battleground survey. Goeas explained that their party weights had held Democrats to a three-point advantage on the initial party ID question ("Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent?"). With the party weight removed, he said, Democrats now hold a seven point advantage on party identification. With the party leaners included, Goeas said, the Democratic advantage grows to 9 points.
Goeas also said that removing the party weight had the effect of changing the age distribution. It increased the weighted value of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 from 17% to 22% of their sample.
Last night, Nate Silver flagged the age of the Battlegound survey as a likely explanation for the fact that, until today, only the Battleground survey showed John McCain with a greater percentage of the national vote than Barack Obama. Nate was right to question the relatively small number of younger voters in the sample. He pointed out that the U.S. Census Current Population Survey (CPS) showed 18-to-34-year-olds as a larger percentage of the voters in 2004 (23.8% -- while Silver imputed a slightly higher value, this spreadsheet on the Census page he linked to allows for a calculation of the more precise statistic).
In my National Journal column, set to appear tomorrow, I'll have more thoughts on the issue of weighting by age. The quick version is that while there is no ideal "right" answer for the age distribution of the electorate, the CPS estimates from 2004 are not a bad place to start.
"The real issue," Celinda Lake explained by email, "is the turnout model." She continued (link added):
I believe there will be heightened youth turnout and our work together for Rock the Vote and our internal polling has shown heightened youth interest and turnout. I believe we have been underestimating the youth turnout with a traditional, conservative turnout model. We have moved to a model with higher youth turnout ans well as looking at age in the weights.
Bottom line: The change in the Battleground weighting today most likely accounts for their net four-point shift on their survey in Obama's favor. I'll have more details tomorrow when my column is posted.
We logged ten new statewide polls yesterday, including seven -- five from Fox/Rasmussen and one each from SurveyUSA and PPP -- that tracked results from last week or mid-September. All seven showed improvements of between two and five percentage points on the margin for Barack Obama. Although our state classifications remain unchanged since yesterday, our estimates have shifted slightly in Obama's direction in 4 of the 6 battleground states for which we have new surveys (Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia).
We did see a shift in the North Carolina Senate race, where a new PPP survey shows Democratic challenger Kay Hagan leading by eight points (46% to 38%) over Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole. That result confirms an existing upward trend for Hagan, and increases her lead to 4 points on our overall estimate (45.1% to 41.1%), enough to shift the race from toss-up to lean Hagan.
Back to the presidential race. I have noted previously in these updates that our trend estimator tends to be "small-c" conservative by design: It smooths out the line, which may sometimes understate a trend, especially if we see a significant shift nationally but only one or two new surveys in each state. We saw that lag just after the Republican convention, when it took about a week for the McCain-Palin bump to show up clearly on our map, and we have seen something similar in the Obama-Biden rebound over the last two weeks.
The "more sensitive" setting on the "smoothing" tool in our new Flash charts provides a way to check for potential short term trends. Consider Pennsylvania. Our standard trend estimate shows Barack Obama with a 3.3% lead (48.0% to 44.7% at the time of this posting**):
However, the more sensitive estimate, which gives greater weight to the more recent surveys in Pennsylvania that show Barack Obama running "above trend," gives the Democrat a lead of just over seven points (49.9% to 42.8%). That margin would be more than enough to shift Pennsylvania back to the "lean Obama" category:
The "more sensitive" trend estimate setting comes with an important warning: It is more apt to be "fooled" by outliers or other random noise in the data, so some of the short terms shifts it plots may turn out to be illusory.
To try to check for that possibility, I ran the more sensitive estimates -- again, as of this writing -- for the 12 of the 14 battleground states I have been monitoring for these updates (we lack sufficient polls to calculate a more sensitive trend in West Virginia and Indiana). As the table below shows, Obama does better on the more sensitive trend estimate in 9 of 12 states.
The bottom line: The national trackers are showing additional gains for Obama over the last week. These gains are probably not yet fully registered on the standard state trend estimates that drive our map. If these gains hold -- a big "if" -- we will likely see continuing movement to Obama on the national map over the next week.
PS: Charles Franklin is traveling today and has not had a chance to run and send the "national forces" charts. I will update when he does.
**The numbers in the text match the chart as of 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Any polls added after that will change the estimates.
I contributed to this week's print National Journal as part of a special feature titled, "What Will This Election Hinge On?" In a piece called "The Uncertain," now posted online, I focused on the voters in the Diageo-Hotline tracking survey who are uncertain either about how they will vote or whether they will vote.
The pollsters at FD that conduct the Diageo-Hotline poll were kind enough to roll together and share the 2,449 registered voters interviewed as part of their daily tracking survey over the first few weeks of September. I was able to profile the 23% that were either totally undecided or uncertain about their choice (n=973), and the 9% that are only "probable" (not "definite") to vote (n=377), and compare these voters to the larger sample.
The print edition includes a short summary table, but I have put my complete data run in a table below (after the jump).
The results I found most interesting involved the voters that are undecided or uncertain about Obama and McCain:
[T]hese voters harbor doubts about the shortcomings they perceive in Obama and in McCain. By a 34-point margin (52 percent to 18 percent), they see McCain as "more prepared to lead the country" than Obama. And by a nearly opposite 31-point margin (50 percent to 21 percent), they say that Obama "better understands the needs and priorities" of people like them.
The key difference, omitted from the print piece, is that the Obama numbers on the "prepared" question was much lower among the uncertain voters than among all voters. Similarly, the McCain number on the "understands" question was lower among the uncertain voters than among all voters on the full sample.
This sense of uncertainty underscores the point about last Friday's debate that Marc Ambinder made over the weekend:
The first presidential debate was watched by tens of millions of people who were seeing the candidates discuss their views for the first time.
Both campaigns know that the most get-able voters at this point are the ones who are highly engaged with the race but tend to base their views on the highest, loudest levels of information.
The people most likely to move the poll numbers one way or another haven't been tuning into the 30 or so primary debates we've had; low information voters were the most relevant audience Friday night.
Normally electoral vote tides take weeks and months to form and impact a campaign. Ten days ago the financial crisis wave rose quickly and swamped this presidential campaign. It is the only thing anyone is talking about; it has received saturation media coverage (and, as we write this, the Asian and European markets are down significantly). And it may be the final nail in the coffin for John McCain.
Up until the financial crisis, the McCain campaign had been doing a remarkable job of staying close (and even, briefly, pulling ahead) in a campaign that it has no real business winning when you consider the environment. But with a sinking economy piled on top of everything else, even a perfect campaign might not be enough.
Which brings us to the debate. Both men were terrific (kudos, too, to Jim Lehrer for staying out of the way and basically letting the two candidates go at it), so we'll call it a draw. But in many respects it doesn't matter what McCain does or says during these debates; all eyes are on Obama. We've said it many times: if Obama can prove himself to be a credible commander-in-chief (not an easy task, mind you), he'll win. And he did that on Friday night. He was poised and direct, much better than he was during his primary debates or during the two recent forums at Saddleback and Columbia University. His performance, combined with the financial crisis, makes it likely that he will win this election.
Today, the LCG regression vote model projects McCain losing by 2.2 points in November. He currently trails by 2.3 points. In many of those national and key state polls, Obama has taken a three-eight point lead; he obviously has momentum. McCain's recent vote strength is still checking the more recent bounce that Obama got from the fiscal crisis (and we haven't seen an impact from his debate performance yet), which is preventing the model from giving Obama any momentum beyond his current advantage. Put another way, because McCain has (recently) proven himself to be a strong and credible candidate, the model needs more evidence that Obama's "fiscal crisis"/debate bounce is genuine before it projects him as a bigger winner.
What the regression does show is that the financial crisis has all but eliminated the GOP Convention/Palin pick bounce that McCain enjoyed. We have reverted to the early-August Obama lead. Undecided and "soft" voters have drifted back into the Obama column. And as many other pollsters have noted, Obama has re-taken a solid lead with Independents. There is a direct relationship between this and the collapse of the Palin/Maverick narrative--and this began way before the Couric interview. Thursday's debate will be an opportunity for the McCain campaign to re-engage with some of those voters, but Palin will have to have a strong night (see #4 below). Having said all of the above, there are still five weeks to go (a lifetime in political campaigns), so anything can happen. But the next few weeks (and debates) will be critical for the McCain campaign as it works to change the current narrative.
Up-to-the-Minute Analysis of the Environment
McCain's gambit last week may yet pay off. The President spoke at 7:30 a.m. this morning. It is likely that the House will vote today to pass the amended version of the Administration's $700 billion plan. As it stands at 9:30 a.m. this morning, it appears that taxpayer protections have been built into the plan. It remains to be seen if McCain's interventionist actions taken last week will be seen as a political asset or a liability, but this morning's activities have improved his odds.
There is every indication that this week may be just as financially painful as the last. This will be the only political conversation for the next 72 hours. If the economy is in crisis and it remains the dominant news story it continues to help Obama. And as of this writing the markets are experiencing big drops. So long as the financial crisis is front-and-center, McCain's ability to move the needle (i.e. improve his standing in the polls) will be at the margins.
As we said above, Friday's debate was a draw and that translates into a win for Obama. We have said this several times before but it bears repeating: this election is really almost all about Obama. If the public decides he is an acceptable alternative--and a credible commander-in- chief--then he wins. Friday night was another step in that direction. Simply put, he passed the credibility test. Obama seemed reasonable, responsible and rational. The debate likely served to allay fears that some voters have with Obama. Other debate thoughts:
McCain was about as good as he can be. Our sense is that this might have been the best debate performance of the year for both candidates. McCain in particular seemed to steer the debate to talking points that best supported his candidacy (spending, earmarks, troop surge in Iraq).
Obama talked to McCain (and the camera) and McCain talked to the Ole Miss audience. It made Obama seem more natural while McCain came across as a bit awkward.
Obama telling his own bracelet story was awkward at best. Any time a candidate tries to one up another on their turf it almost always backfires. Obama should have let that one go.
Thursday is the VP debate and it is time to let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin. Our sense is that you have to let her sink or swim, so let her do a dozen interviews a day and just let it fly. We agree with Bill Kristol: it was a mistake to put her into this cocoon because it turns every interview into a white-knuckler. In doing so, you make her afraid to make a mistake, and her interviews get worse because of it.
The financial crisis will move up the timetable on harsh comparative attack spots. They will wait until the financial crisis bill passes and the VP debate is over, but it is our sense that the McCain team will not let this thing drift too far before unleashing whatever "A" material they have in reserve. Hold on to your hat...because things are going to get wild.
LCG Electoral Vote Map
Below is our updated map. Obama's lead is widening basically everywhere, except PA and FL. He continues to maintain a lead in solid electoral votes.
Based on recent state polling we have moved the following states:
New Mexico from toss-up to Obama
New Mexico is extremely problematic for Team McCain. While McCain appeared to have closed the gap in late July and early August, it now appears that Obama has opened up a seven-point lead based on an average of the last three state-wide polls. While it is unlikely that New Mexico will be decisive on November 4th, peeling away states like New Mexico could allow Obama to get to 270 electoral votes while winning only two of the heavyweight toss-ups of Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Florida. The trend has to be disconcerting.
If you haven't seen it yet, this Gallup analysis of the latest USA Today/Gallup poll on the Wall Street crisis, conducted over the weekend, is a must-read. The poll...:
finds more Americans disapproving than approving of how most of the major national political players have handled the recent problems on Wall Street. Only Barack Obama squeaks by with more Americans approving than disapproving of his performance on the issue, 46% to 43%."
Welcome to what political consultants call "Week 5" (the fifth calender week before the election). Partly because I reported in the last afternoon on Friday, and partly because few statewide pollsters interviewed on Friday, we have logged just nine new statewide polls since my last update. As such, we have not much to report, especially in the battleground states.
The only new survey we logged in a battleground state over the weekend was a new release from the Democratic firm Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner in Michigan.
While that survey shows a only two-point improvement for Obama on the
margin, it confirms and extends the upward trend for Obama in Michigan
evident on recent surveys.
The national forces graphs show only slight change since late Friday. The
Obama-minus-McCain margin on the state national forces trend line
(based on a mash-up of all state polls) shows a very slight drop, mostly because of new surveys from Friday and over the weekend in less frequently poll blue states, such as Oregon, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, all showing slightly tighter margins since the conventions.
So who won the debate? We now have results from four five** surveys, plus one "dial" focus group, and they all show essentially the same thing. On the question of who "did a better job," respondents rated Barack Obama better than John McCain. However, the surveys went about their measurement tasks in different ways, and we will not know for a few days whether the stronger impression that Obama made will into changes in vote preference.
Before turning to the data, it is worth thinking about what we are trying to measure. What does "winning" a debate mean? Is it about which candidate "did a better job" as perceived by the voters? Or is it about which candidate made the most progress in growing or solidifying their support? While most of the pollsters have emphasized their results on the "who did a better job" question, what most of us want to know is whether the debate made a difference in overall vote preference. That latter issue is much harder to gauge from these first "snap" surveys.
So on to the data:
USA Today and Gallup called 1,005 randomly sampled adults on Saturday and found 63% who said they had watched the debate. Of these, 46% thought Obama "did a better job" in the debate, 34% preferred McCain.
CNN/Opinion Research Corporation re-contacted 524 adults Friday night who watched the debate. Their respondents had indicated on a previous random sample telephone survey that they planned to watch the debate. Of these, 51% thought Obama "did the best job in the debate," and 38% thought McCain did best.
CBS News and Knowledge Networks re-contacted 483 previously interviewed, uncommitted voters (those "who don't yet know who they will vote for, or who have chosen a candidate but may still change their minds") on Friday night that had agreed tow watch the debate. Their respondents were members of the Knowledge Networks nationally representative internet panel (more on that below). Thirty-nine percent (39%) thought Obama "did the best job -- or won," while 24% preferred McCain.
Zogby International surveyed 2,102 respondents from their non-random online panel. They "gave Obama the win by the slightest of margins" (47% to 46%).
Democratic affiliated Democracy Corps conducted a "dial" focus group involving 45 undecided voters in St. Louis, Missouri. Thirty-eight percent (38%) of this non-random sample thought Obama won, 27% gave the win to McCain.
The critical limitation of the "who won" question is that debates almost always reinforce voters' pre-existing preferences. Those who tune into the debate with their minds made up (or mostly made up) tend to rate their preferred candidate as the "winner." If the debate audience prefers one candidate by a lopsided margin, that candidate will usually come out as the perceived winner, so it is important to try to look at these results either by party or by the candidate previously supported.
Both Gallup and CNN/ORC found more self-identified Democrats than Republicans among the debate viewers, mostly reflecting the party identification advantage that Democrats hold nationwide. The CNN story, for example, tells us:
The results may be favoring Obama simply because more Democrats than Republicans tuned in to the debate. Of the debate-watchers questioned in this poll, 41 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Democrats, 27 percent as Republicans and 30 percent as independents.
The story also quotes CNN Senior Political Researcher Alan Silverleib saying that the debate amounted to a tie "especially after accounting for the slight Democratic bias in the survey." "Given the direction of the campaign over the last couple of weeks," he adds, "a tie translates to a win for Obama." Unfortunately, the CNN story did not include a cross-tabulation by party, and made no reference to the reaction of independents.
The Gallup analysis, however, tells us (with emphasis added):
The data show a predictable pattern of response from Republicans and Democrats. Seventy-two percent of the former and 74% of the latter said that their party's candidate did the better job in the debate. This reinforces the conventional wisdom that many viewers watch a debate through their preexisting perceptual framework and end up with nothing more than reinforcement for what they believed before the debate began. But among the crucial group of independents who watched the debate -- those most likely to actually be swayed by what transpired, Obama won by 10 points, 43% to 33%.
For my money, the most useful analysis so far is the one from CBS and Knowledge Networks, because they focused on previously uncommitted voters and were able to report on how the debate changed specific impressions among these critically important voters. They found, for example, that Obama gained 16 points on being "prepared for the job of President" (from 44% who answered "yes" to 60%), while John McCain gained only five points (from 36% to 41%) on "understands the needs and problems of people like you."
The CBS/KN survey also found a modest shift in Obama's direction on vote preference. Before the debate Obama had a two-point lead (36% to 34%) among the uncertain voters. After the debate, Obama led by 12 points (41% to 29%).
Of course, how much credence you give these results may depend on what you think of the Knowledge Networks panel. CBS News has been using it for eighty years to measure the reactions to debates and speeches, because of its unique design. Knowledge Networks recruits members to its panel using the same "random digit dial" telephone sampling procedures that most pollsters use to conduct national surveys. Those without internet access are provided with Web TV service so that they can participate in the surveys.
While Knowledge Networks has good reason to say they conduct "scientifically valid" online research, we should keep in mind that like any survey panel, their approach has limitations. Keep in mind that the 483 respondents selected randomly from the KN panel had to agree to participate four times: First, when they were first contacted by telephone; second, at the end of that interview when they agreed to join the panel; third, when asked to participate in the pre-debate survey for CBS and fourth on the post-debate survey.
So the true response rate would be much lower than the cold-call national surveys we typically plot on our national trend chart. A lower response rate does not, but itself, introduce error. In this case, it simply argues for a bit more caution when interpreting the results.
Back to the Gallup report. They also include a paragraph that makes reference to their historical archive of comparable "quick reaction polls" conducted over the years:
History shows that "winning" the first presidential debate does not necessarily translate into winning the election. Ross Perot, Al Gore, and John Kerry are among those who were seen by debate watchers in quick reaction polls as having done the better job in the first debate of their campaign year, and all eventually lost their elections. There are two presidential (and one vice presidential) debates yet to come, and much can change. The most important indicator of the impact of the debate may be trends in overall candidate support, where, at the moment, Obama leads McCain.
I made a similar argument in my column this week, and I think the bottom line still holds. If "winning" the debate means gaining electoral support (or perhaps, in Obama's case, solidifying his national lead), the true test will come from the nationally representative surveys of all voters conducted over the next few days. So if we're willing to wait a few days, we will know for sure.
**Update: I missed the LA Times/Bloomberg survey that interviewed 448 registered voters Friday evening through Sunday who said they watched the debate. From the LA Timesarticle:
Overall, more voters in the Times/Bloomberg poll -- 34% -- thought the
debate was a draw than believed either candidate had prevailed.
Thirty-three percent of debate watchers said Obama did the best job,
and 29% gave the nod to McCain.
These results, noted by Marc Ambinder, are intriguing, although it would be helpful to know the partisanship of the debate watchers surveyed:
The poll also indicated that the younger, less-experienced Obama has
made strides since last week in convincing Americans that he can handle
the toughest challenges facing the country, including the economy and
Obama was seen as more "presidential" by 46% of the debate watchers, compared with 33% for McCain.
The difference is even more pronounced among debate watchers who were
not firmly committed to a candidate: 44% said they believed Obama
looked more presidential, whereas 16% gave McCain the advantage.