News You Can Use: Summer Polls Useless

How do you reconcile the excitement and enthusiasm of the Obama campaign and Sen. Barack Obama’s apparent confidence with the polls showing a neck and neck race between Sen. Obama and Sen. John McCain? Ignore the polls, says Clive Crook in the Financial Times:

How does one make sense of this? The simple answer may get me ejected from the guild of political commentators, who have a lot of space to fill between now and November — but I report it nonetheless. It is that these early head-to-head polls and the vast enterprise of political analysis, nit-picking and minute speculation they support, are, to a first order of approximation, worthless. In short, you resolve the paradox by ignoring them.

Note that if you do, science is on your side. Alan Abramowitz, a politics scholar at Emory University, has shown that summer head-to-head polls convey almost no information about the forthcoming election. (Subsequent head-to-head polls are not much better.) Instead, he has a simple “electoral barometer” that weighs together the approval rating of the incumbent president, the economy’s economic growth rate and whether the president’s party has controlled the White House for two terms (the “time for a change” factor). This laughably simple metric has correctly forecast the winner of the popular vote in 14 out of 15 postwar presidential elections.

That would give the advantage to Sen. Obama and I think that’s right.

Kevin Drum notes this finding and comments:

In any case, Abramowitz’s metric, which ranges from -100 to +100, gives John McCain a score of -60 this year, which means he’s as doomed as any candidate ever. This suggests two thing: (a) Obama is going to win a very convincing victory, and (b) the only real way for the McCain campaign to give itself a chance is by going negative early and hard. I’ll put money on both those things.

I think it’s just too early to tell. Wait until after the conventions, after the Olympics. That’s when I’ll start looking at polls and, when I do, I’ll look at a) polls of likely voters and b) polls from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. Wayne says:

    It reminds me of the sporting events prediction from past stats that people use. For every one that ends up being true many others turn out false. McCain is independent enough that some would consider him a change. Funny thing about contest one doesn’t know the outcome until it happens. The reasons for the outcome are often speculative in nature especially in a political race.

  2. Derrick says:

    I blame teh Internets. People are so caught up in the horserace with all of the websites and 50 polling outfits that they lose sight of the big picture. Using a little of Wayne’s post, I used to think that “being clutch” and “base stealing” were important parts of winning at baseball, until I discovered sabermetrics and realized that macro statistical analysis is a much better predictor of an outcome than any day to day stat that can be exploited by variability and small sample size.

    I feel more confidant about Obama’s chances than I felt insecure about Kerry’s in 2004 because of what the good professor states. The broader analysis tells you that the candidates only matter at the margins. Obviously luck can play a factor, but in the end, consumer confidence and the incumbent party matter a lot more than who McCain and Obama are.

  3. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    How do you reconcile the excitement and enthusiasm of the Obama campaign and Sen. Barack Obama’s apparent confidence with the polls showing a neck and neck race between Sen. Obama and Sen. John McCain?

    A couple of things come to mind here. One is that the MSM is pushing Obama so the actual “enthusiasm” may be less than is being reported.

    Then, the reported enthusiasm usually originates from younger people while us older farts have a hard time getting enthused about much of anything. But then we older farts are the ones who tend to vote more than the younger ones so if the polls are taken of “likely voters”, we older farts tend to dominate.