Polls Vary Widely

Bush clear leader in poll (Susan Page, USA TODAY)

President Bush has surged to a 13-point lead over Sen. John Kerry among likely voters, a new Gallup Poll shows. The 55%-42% match-up is the first statistically significant edge either candidate has held this year. (Related item: Poll results) Among registered voters, Bush is ahead 52%-44%. The boost Bush received from the Republican convention has increased rather than dissipated, reshaping a race that for months has been nearly tied. Kerry is facing warnings from Democrats that his campaign is seriously off-track.

With 46 days until the election, analysts say the proposed presidential debates offer Kerry his best chance to change the race. “It doesn’t look like the new consultants and strategies of attacks are the right ones” for Kerry, says Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign. Kerry in recent weeks added veterans of the Clinton White House to his team and began criticizing Bush more sharply on Iraq and other issues. Dowd says Kerry at this point would “have to defy history” to defeat a sitting president. “We have seen some bouncing around in the numbers,” says Mike McCurry, a top Kerry adviser, “but it is our sense that the race is moving back to a much closer race.”

A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday shows a tighter contest. The survey, taken Saturday through Tuesday, gives Bush a statistically insignificant lead of 47%-46% among likely voters. The Gallup Poll was taken Monday through Wednesday.

Presidential candidates have won after trailing by similar margins. One was George W. Bush himself. In 2000, he was behind Al Gore by 10 points among registered voters in early October and then prevailed in the Electoral College, though he lost the popular vote. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was down 8 points in the Gallup Poll in late October but won in a landslide after doing well in the only debate held with President Carter. “Sen. Kerry is like Seabiscuit: He runs better from behind,” says Donna Brazile, who was Gore’s campaign manager. But she acknowledges that “backbenchers” in the Democratic Party “have begun pushing the panic button.”

Seabiscuit, huh? Of course, his previous comebacks have been in Massachussets and the Democratic nominating electorate. That’s not quite the same thing as a swing state in a national campaign.

Bush Bounce Keeps On Going (David Moore, Gallup Poll)

In a new Gallup Poll, conducted Sept. 13-15, President George W. Bush leads Democratic candidate John Kerry by 55% to 42% among likely voters, and by 52% to 44% among registered voters. These figures represent a significant improvement for Bush since just before the beginning of the Republican National Convention. In the immediate aftermath of that convention, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Bush receiving a modest bounce from his standing before the convention. Among likely voters, Bush’s support was up two points and Kerry’s was down two points. Among the larger sample of registered voters, Bush’s support was up two points, while Kerry’s was unchanged. The bounce was small, whether measured among the likely or the registered voter groups, so that it was well within the margin of error of the post-convention poll. Given the sample sizes of the two groups, one could not say with 95% certainty that Bush’s support had actually increased. Now, in the new poll, the figures show Bush with a 13-point lead over Kerry among likely voters and an 8-point lead among registered voters. Both sets of figures represent significant increases in Bush’s standing in the race since just before the beginning of the Republican convention in late August, when likely voters chose Bush over Kerry by a slight three-point margin (50% to 47%), and registered voters leaned toward Kerry by an even smaller margin of one point (48% to 47%).

A somewhat different take on the identical poll.

Dems Say Kerry Back On Track (CBS News) WARNING: CBS. Fraudulent information extremely likely. Use appropriate caution.

Despite turmoil in the John Kerry campaign, key Democrats believe Kerry is back on-message and poised to overtake President Bush by Election Day. Following two weeks of Kerry campaign reorganization, optimism flourishes among party insiders. Democrats favor this increasingly combative Kerry. Veteran Democratic strategists agree that John Kerry had a poor August, was off message and allowed President Bush to drive the momentum of the campaign. That̢۪s ending, in party veterans̢۪ views.


Indications are the Kerry comeback may already be underway, according to at least one poll.
Polling by the Pew Research Center from September 8-10 showed President Bush ahead of Kerry by 12 points among registered voters. In a second poll, done September 11-14, the race was a dead heat — President Bush and John Kerry each with 46 percent of the vote. With less than two weeks until the first presidential debate, the contest is far from decided. After expressing frustration following the month of August, Democrats are confident Kerry has gotten back on track.

The Pew poll certainly seems like an outlyer, though, given the number of other polls out there with larger Bush leads.

Finally, Al Hunt asks, “What If the Polls Are Wrong?

Presidential elections are poll-driven. The candidate ahead in the surveys usually gets better coverage, and the results energize supporters. The one behind often comes across as doing little right, and campaigns and constituencies lose confidence. But what if the polls are wrong, and we aren’t surveying the real likely electorate?

This might be more than an academic issue. A number of polls this presidential race show a gap in the preferences of registered voters vs. likely voters. In these models, the president usually does better with likely voters, the figure most news organizations emphasize. To get to likely voters, all polling organizations use what is called a “screen,” asking questions to determine who is likely to actually turn out on election day. These screens differ greatly, as there is no consensus among experts on what works best. “This is an art, not a science,” says Peter Hart, the prominent Democratic polltaker who has helped conduct The Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey for 15 years.

This controversy will be fueled by today’s just-released Gallup poll that shows George Bush with a 13-point lead over John Kerry. That is at variance with other surveys this week, which suggest a tight race with a much smaller Bush tilt. But the likely voters margin also is considerably larger than the eight-point advantage in Gallup’s registered voters in this survey. The likely voters match-up invariably gets more attention. Gallup explains it has what it considers a time-tested formula for determining most likely voters. It asks eight questions, such as current intensity of interest, past voting behavior and interest, and whether you know where your voting place is. “We’ve discovered that if we ask a set of more indirect questions, we can better predict who is or is not likely to vote,” Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, has said. But there is reason to suspect those criteria are outdated, especially in an election where both sides say the intensity level is much higher than four years ago and get-out-the-vote organizations are considerably better than ever — few people on Nov. 2 will be in the dark on where the voting polls are. “A formula that made sense years ago may not recognize all the changes in society,” notes Mr. Hart. “It gives more credence to past behavior and too little to current interest.” “For low-turnout elections those old models work well,” suggests Bill McInturff, a Republican, and the other WSJ/NBC News pollster. “But in today’s presidential election those models tend to [tilt to] a little older, a little more white, a little more affluent and a little more Republican voters. They may miss some of the extraordinary activity going on in African-American and Latino communities.”

The registered-likely voters dichotomy also is evident in some of Gallup’s state surveys including last week’s Ohio results.” Among registered voters in the Buckeye State, Bush-Cheney had a 48%-to- 47% edge, a dead heat. Among likely voters, however, this poll had the Republicans up 52%-44%; that garnered all the attention, followed by a spate of stories suggesting this key battleground state was moving to the president. Curiously, the Gallup poll in the similar state of Pennsylvania at the same time showed a virtually even race among both registered and likely voters. And occasionally, the screen favors the Democrats; a Marist survey this week of New York state showed Sen. Kerry 11 points ahead among likely voters, but only seven points ahead among registered voters. But most of the time the screen for likely voters tilts Republican. In 2000, Gallup’s election eve survey showed George Bush ahead by two points among its likely voters; he trailed Al Gore by a point among registered voters, very close to the final outcome.


The probable outlook: Polls will vary and conflict if this race remains tight. Also, poll watchers must remember that the best survey has a three or four-point margin of error; that means if it shows the race even, one or the other candidate actually could be up by a half-dozen. Here’s a final guide: If almost all the election eve polls show one candidate up four or five points or more, take it to the bank. But if most show the race within a couple of points, plan on staying up late election night.

This is a longstanding question, to be sure. Polls are much better at gauging “opinion” than “behavior.” It’s almost certainly true that close races will tend to increase turnout, mostly from the demographics (young, poor, uneducated) that typically sit elections out. Those groups are disproportionately Democrats. Presumably, one has to apply the filters a bit more carefully in a close election. Still, his disclaimers above aside, Bill McInturff screens for likely voters. (See the Public Opinion Strategies poll I linked yesterday.) I suspect there’s a reason for that.

Update (1632): DJ Drummond has some more analysis.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. BigFire says:

    The poll that really matters are the internal polls done by the campaign. Right now, the Bush side is claiming 4-5% ahead (They’re probably being conservative with that figure). I haven’t heard anything about Kerry’s internal poll.

  2. Meezer says:

    I’m sorry, but, Kerry is nothing like Seabiscuit.
    Seabiscuit had class and real guts and did not whine. On the other hand, if I had a candidate with a face like Kerry’s, I would be a little careful of the horse comparisons. [I know; that was bad. Bad and cheap. Going off to repent now.]

  3. paladin says:

    My hope is that some day, these polls will be banned from the public — campaigns may use them if they please, but please spare the public from polls, especially since pollsters describe them as art and not science. Remember that these same genii predicted that Al Gore would win the 2000 presidential campaign in a “cakewalk”, that the Democrats would make huge gains in the 2002 elections, that the California governor recall would never happen, that Howard Dean would be the Democratic nominee—you get my drift.

  4. M. Murcek says:

    The question should really be: “What if Al Hunt is Wrong (Again)?”

  5. Bithead says:

    You would expect Hunt to raise such a question, given his boy is behind.

    Think; Did he ask such questions when Bush Sr was behind in the polling against Clinton?