Polls are like a drug

I’m in a tough bind. I’m a political junkie who likes numbers. And these days there are no shortage of numbers. Polling companies I’ve never heard of before are coming up with statistic after statistic. Each day, I’m driven to the latest polls at RCP or Pollster.com to check on what’s new. The worst are the daily tracking polls…as someone who has studied statistics, I realize that reading anything into the day-to-day variations is pointless, but I can’t stop myself. It’s compounded by the fact that this is an electoral college election, not a popular vote election: the total vote doesn’t really matter. Obama could drive up his lead by gaining bigger margins in states he is going to win anyway, and it would change the outcome. The same for McCain – increasing his lead in somewhere like Texas from 10% to 30% could change the vote totals, but not the outcome.

Obama has clearly pulled ahead in both the state and national polls recently, but I’m expect to see the race tighten up as people make up their minds and as some of McCain’s attack ads have an effect. You see, I think a lot of the so-called undecided voters are actually moderate Republicans who would normally vote for McCain, but are a bit nervous about the economy and McCain’s spotty performance. Obama might win some of them over, but some will eventually return to their Republican roots. Today’s polls are mostly tightening, except for Gallup, which now shows Obama with a staggering 11-point lead.

The big unknown in this election will be turnout. The electorate will likely look quite different this time around, and that may make all the difference.

One Reply to “Polls are like a drug”

  1. Are the numbers trying to correct for the classic race issue with polling (i.e. that hardly anyone wants to look racist, so poll numbers overestimate actual votes for African-American candidates)?

    I also think that there’s this weird character to the Ayers/Wright attacks that hasn’t fully played out. The pitch is basically to try to play on as many of White America’s visceral fears as possible – Obama is trying to be glued to Black Radical Criminal Terrorists/ Black racist white-hating preachers/ Closet Muslim-sympathizing-soft-on-Islamic terrorists secretly anti-American scum. (I listened to some right wing talk radio guys go on and on and on about Obama praising the beauty of the Muslim call to prayer yesterday.) It is not coherent or logically consistent. But in this weird universe, somehow his Ivy League education works against him — he also ends up embodying liberal elite PC soft-headed sympathy for smoothtalking scum (as Tom Wolfe lampooned long ago in his book Radical Chic).

    My thought/hope is that this kind of stuff worked find in 1988, and it appeals to people in the Republican “base” still, but it misfires with a lot of folks in 2008. But I worry just a bit that if some variant of the bail-out stabilizes things, and there’s a big terrorist attack in Iraq, that all this garbage could start to resonate with people.

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