All year various talking heads have been telling us that we're seeing the most polarized electorate in years. The underlying subtext of this is that there aren't many undecided voters. But if that's so, how come we're seeing such big swings in poll results over relatively short periods of time?
I haven't had the opportunity yet to look at the so-called "internals" of the latest polls, but I expect there are a couple of things at work.
One, pollsters have been having a harder time getting good, representative polling samples. Some of it is personal: It seems that more people don't want to be bothered to take polls or don't participate because of some suspicion about the polling process itself. Some of it is technological: The proliferation of cell phones, for example, makes it harder to get the right demographics for a sample (you can't tell for sure what ZIP code, or codes, a cell phone might be located in). And so forth. Since good samples are critical to reliable results we face the possibility of a) polling models that could leave us quite surprised on Nov. 2, or b) tinkering with sampling methods that can adversely affect trend-tracking, which is really where polls are most useful.
Second, most polls ask some version of this question:
Suppose that the presidential election were being held today, and it included John Kerry and John Edwards as the Democratic candidates, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as the Republican candidates, and Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo as independent candidates. Who would you vote for?
You'll notice that there's no option for saying you're undecided, though if a respondent says he has no opinion this will be noted. So basically, the question pushes respondents into a position, even if they are undecided. As a result, the real number of undecided voters is somewhat higher than the 2 or 3 percent reported in stories about the polls.
Which brings us to the first post-debate polls. In the aftermath of the Republican convention, you'll recall, President Bush jumped to a lead of several points (variously reported at 5 to 14 in the polls I saw) over John Kerry. In the wake of Debate 1, that lead has vanished.
Kerry now leads very narrowly in the latest Newsweek poll (they call it a statistical dead heat, which is true in that it is within the poll's margin of error):
With a solid majority of voters concluding that John Kerry outperformed George W. Bush in the first presidential debate on Thursday, the president’s lead in the race for the White House has vanished, according to the latest NEWSWEEK poll. In the first national telephone poll using a fresh sample, NEWSWEEK found the race now statistically tied among all registered voters, 47 percent of whom say they would vote for Kerry and 45 percent for George W. Bush in a three-way race.
Removing Independent candidate Ralph Nader, who draws 2 percent of the vote, widens the Kerry-Edwards lead to three points with 49 percent of the vote versus the incumbent’s 46 percent. Four weeks ago the Republican ticket, coming out of a successful convention in New York, enjoyed an 11-point lead over Kerry-Edwards with Bush pulling 52 percent of the vote and the challenger just 41 percent.
The new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows the two men tied:
Favorable public reaction to his performance in the first presidential debate has boosted Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and narrowed the contest with President Bush to a tie, according to a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll.
Bush's lead of 8 percentage points before Thursday's debate evaporated in a survey taken Friday through Sunday. Among likely voters, Bush and Kerry are at 49% each. Independent candidate Ralph Nader is at 1%.
As always, read these results with caution. They were valid (if ever) over the two or three days they were taken following the debate and no doubt will change in the next four weeks. Or, as the car people say, your mileage may vary.
Nonetheless, while we won't know a real number until Nov. 2, both campaigns are acting as though the race is a dead heat again. That may make tomorrow night's vice presidential debate tomorrow night more important than it might otherwise be (more about that tomorrow) and raises the stakes for presidential Debate 2 on Friday.