Bush Behind Even Though Ahead?
Polls Put Bush on the Edge (Ron Brownstein, LAT)
While most of America is watching the spread in the polls between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, key strategists in both parties have their eyes on a different set of numbers: Bush’s share of the vote and his job approval in the final surveys before election day.
Analysts watch the incumbent’s numbers in the polls so closely because most voters who stay undecided until the very end of a presidential campaign traditionally break for the challenger. As a result, challengers often run ahead of their final poll results, while incumbents rarely exceed their last poll numbers. “We know from the history of presidential elections that when a president is polling below 50% going into the election, he usually loses,” said Alan I. Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist. “That is true of incumbent office holders in general. The incumbent usually ends up getting the percentage that he is getting in the final polls Ã¢€” that’s it.”
By that standard, the race today is teetering right on the knife’s edge, though perhaps tilting slightly toward Bush after he regained the lead in five separate national polls released over the weekend. More importantly, for the first time since the debates, Bush in three of the latest surveys cracked the 50% level in support Ã¢€” the best news GOP strategists have seen in weeks.
Surveys released Saturday by Newsweek and ABC/Washington Post put Bush’s support at 50% among likely voters. On Sunday, Bush reached 52% among likely voters in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, opening an 8-percentage-point advantage over Kerry. But a survey released over the weekend by Time placed Bush at 48% Ã¢€” as did the Newsweek result among registered voters. And the daily tracking poll by independent pollster John Zogby on Sunday put Bush at 46% with likely voters. Among registered voters, Bush got 49% in the new Gallup Poll.
Hmm. Let’s see. We have a whole series of polls showing Bush with a lead with two weeks to go. And yet the focus is on the fact that he’s only slightly above a meaningless 50% threshhold? Because undecided voters typically rally for the challenger? Riiight.
History isn’t always predictive, but races involving White House incumbents have produced a clear pattern over the last 50 years. Since Gallup began systematic polling in 1952, eight incumbents have sought reelection. Bill Clinton in 1996, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Gerald Ford in 1976, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 all attracted a smaller share of the vote on election day than they did in the final Gallup survey. Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 finished almost exactly at their final polling numbers. George H.W. Bush in 1992 ran seven-tenths of a percentage point ahead of his final poll number, the biggest increase for any incumbent since 1952. The one exception to this pattern was in 1948, when Gallup polled less often, and the final survey, begun in mid-October, missed Harry S. Truman’s late surge; Truman exceeded his final poll number by a full 5 percentage points.
Conversely, challengers Ã¢€” like Reagan in 1980, Carter in 1976, Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Adlai Stevenson in 1956 Ã¢€” have frequently polled higher on election day than in the final survey.
So, our data consists of eight cases, one of which was before television began to dominate political campaigns and only one of which takes place during the modern era of 24/7 news coverage? Of the eight, three are exceptions to the rule being asserted. And all based on a single poll, Gallup? And, oddly, Gallup is the poll with Bush well over 50%?
It’s also worth noting that four of the eight races in the sample involved substantial third party candidates, whose numbers are often quite volatile: conservative Democrat George Wallace in 1972, liberal Republican John Anderson in 1980, the highly popular Ross Perot in 1992, and a dimished Perot in 1996. Nader will apparently be a virtual non-factor in the national vote, given that he hovers in 1% range.
There are all sorts of reasons for Bush supporters to be worried in what continues to be a close race. This seems to be among the sillier, however.