Opinion
9:18 am
Fri September 21, 2012

New Republic: Mixed Signals

Nate Cohn is a staff writer at The New Republic

Everyone should agree that Obama is a favorite to win reelection. The question is whether he's simply a modest favorite or quite likely to prevail. The answer depends on the resilience of Obama's bounce. If Obama enters the debates ahead by 4 points among likely voters, as he was immediately following the DNC, he'd be a very strong favorite. But if Obama's bounce subsides and the polls return to the summer average (Obama+1.5 among likely voters, Obama+4 among registered voters), it would be difficult to argue that Romney faces a nearly insurmountable challenge on paper, even if the weaknesses of Romney's candidacy and campaign raise questions about whether Romney could capitalize on what would otherwise be a decent opportunity.

So today's Gallup poll represented extremely good news for Romney. After providing Obama with a clear post-DNC bounce, today's seven day tracker found Obama leading by just 1 point — exactly where the race held for most of the summer and prior to the DNC. In this respect, Gallup joins Rasmussen in showing a return to the pre-convention ante, and if other pollsters join Gallup and Rasmussen, we might expect Obama to only lead by a couple points among likely voters by this time next week. And here it's important to emphasize that while criticisms of the Gallup poll's methodology undermines confidence in their top-line finding, we can still learn lessons from intra-poll movement — especially given their large sample sizes.

And Gallup wasn't alone in showing a signs of a reduced Obama lead. PPP showed Obama's 6 point edge fading to 4 points; while ARG, Gravis, and Rasmussen (all IVR?) combined to depict a close race in the battlegrounds. The Ramussen poll requires particular attention, since it joins SurveyUSA in showing Romney performing better in Colorado than he seems to be in Virginia, Ohio, or Florida. If confirmed, this would represent a meaningful shift in the electoral map, since Colorado was the most-Obama friendly of all of the Bush-Obama states from four years ago. Most pre-convention polls showed Obama leading in Colorado, and if Romney is now doing better in Colorado than he is in Virginia, Florida, or Ohio, then Colorado might not play the pivotal role that many envisioned when they realized it would represent the 270th electoral vote in the event of a tied election if the states swung uniformly in Romney's direction.

On the other hand, today's NBC/WSJ poll represented equally excellent news for the president. The NBC/WSJ poll is held in the highest regard and they showed Obama leading by 5 points, 50-45 among likely voters, a finding highly consistent with a persistent bounce. The underlying numbers were also troubling for Romney: his favorables remain underwater; more voters believe the country is moving in the right direction; Obama tied Romney on who would best handle the economy; and Obama's approval rating reached 50 percent. And although it should be obvious, it's worth flagging the number 50: that's the percentage of votes you need to win.

Now there is a bit of an interpretive challenge. In the absence of an NBC/WSJ poll immediately after the DNC or a likely voter poll prior to the convention, it's harder to judge the poll in relation to "the bounce." However, they did show Obama improving by just 2 points among registered voters since their pre-convention poll. So that might point toward a slightly smaller bounce than the 3 or 4 point bump from pre-convention polls that Obama experienced in the other national surveys. Of course, none of this should obscure the top-line result: plus-five among likely voters is a very good result for the president and a very bad one for Mr. Romney.

Nearly as important was a Washington Post poll in Virginia, which showed Obama reassembling his winning '08 coalition with a 52-44 lead in the Commonwealth; the same tally as the Washington Post's final poll of Virginia in 2008. The Washington Poll continues the pattern of Obama outperforming in polls conducted by live interview, especially in Virginia, where an unusually diverse electorate might be especially tough for the robots. If Obama has clearly lead in Virginia *and* Ohio, Romney's chances would really be in jeopardy. Much in the same way that Gravis and ARG seemed to compliment Rasmussen's poll in Colorado, Morning Call showed Obama up by 9 in Pennsylvania, another strong Obama showing in the Keystone State that seems to confirm that it's out of contention in 2012.

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