Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Have Voters Changed Their Minds About Obama?

No. That's the short answer.

Much of the criticism of the Pew Poll leveled from despairing Democrats has centered on the partisan makeup of the poll. 36% of likely voters in the poll self-identified as Republicans while 33% self-identified as Democrats. Democrats charge that in 2008 exit polls, 39% of voters self-identified as Democrats compared to 32% who self-identified as Republicans and in 2004 (when Democrats lost a close race), Democrats and Republicans each made up 37% of the electorate. So what gives Pew?

The fact is that the Pew poll is a really well-run poll and there is probably nothing significant wrong with their sampling. As Nate Silver has pointed out many times, party identification is a fluid thing and is more a reflection of where the electorate is at any point than a determinant of where the electorate is. And this brings me to my point.

Romney's post-debate surge is driven by enthusiasm among Republicans (and despair among Democrats) rather than voters changing their minds about the President. More Republicans say they're definitely voting now than before and more voters are willing to say they're Republicans than before. These "new" Republicans have been with Romney all along but were less sure about voting and were less willing to call themselves Republicans. Romney's debate performance energized them and reinvigorated their Republican-ness.

We can see this is the case by looking at some other polls. Gallup has started to release likely voter poll numbers in addition to their registered voter numbers. There is a 5-point swing towards Romney when we move from registered voters to likely voters. That's a BIG swing and it is explained by greater enthusiasm among Republicans. But, what's interesting is that when Gallup breaks out their polling over the last seven days, we see this:

Among registered voters, Obama's standing appears not to have eroded at all. Indeed, Gallup has Obama at a 53% job approval rating, slightly higher than it was before the debate.

We see something similar (from a different angle) looking at the Rasmussen poll. Rasmussen weights their sample by party ID. This means their poll has a consistent number of Democrats and Republicans across time. Not surprisingly, Rasmussen's poll has hardly moved since the debate. It has ranged from Obama ahead 49-47 to Romney ahead 49-47 over the last 10 days. This could be seen as mere statistical noise rather than the effect of a "devastating" (Sullivan's words) debate performance by Obama.

Now, I'm not trying to say that all of this increased enthusiasm among Republicans and depression among Democrats is not a problem for the President. But I am saying that people (I'm looking at you Sullivan) need to be careful about interpreting what's happening as a bunch of undecided voters or a bunch of Obama voters suddenly deciding to vote for Mitt Romney.

The lesson of what I'm saying is that the Obama campaign needs to rally its base. That can be done and the best place to start is with better debate performances from the President and the Vice President that re-energizes Democratic voters. I expect that's going to happen starting with Thursday night.

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