McCain camp pushes back against low polling numbers

In a memo, pollsters for John McCain's campaign don't bother to argue that he's leading; they just say he's not trailing as badly as one recent survey said.

Published June 25, 2008 5:40PM (EDT)

As a colleague observed to me today, you know a campaign is worried about its poll numbers when it actually sends around a memo arguing that the polling involved was done badly. Well, that's what John McCain's campaign did today, distributing a memo we've made available for download in PDF form here.

The memo concerns a poll released Tuesday. Conducted by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg, it showed Barack Obama leading John McCain by 12 points in a two-man race. (The margin rises to 15 points when respondents are also asked about two other candidates, Ralph Nader and Bob Barr, but third-party candidates tend to do much better in early polling than they do in the final results.)

As I observed in a post on the poll yesterday, it shows a wider margin between Obama and McCain than some other recent polls have, and that margin seems attributable to the composition of the sample; a greater proportion of self-identified Democrats was included in that poll than in others conducted recently. That's the McCain camp's complaint -- in the memo, its pollsters argue that "McCain's double digit deficit is not a reflection of reality, simply a result of an unusual party identification result in this survey."

The contested poll had a 17-point gap in party identification, with 22 percent of respondents calling themselves Republicans and 39 percent saying they're Democrats. McCain's pollsters argue that the average in recent polls has been about a 10-point party identification gap, and that if similar numbers had been used in this latest poll, the margin between Obama and McCain would be only 7 points.

It's hard to argue that the composition of the sample isn't at least debatable, as party identification can change over the next few months, and the question of just how many Americans have swung toward the Democratic Party recently may not be truly and definitively answered until Election Day. But then, you could say the same thing about polls that have party identification numbers more favorable to McCain.

While they're right that there's reason to question this poll specifically -- though perhaps not as much reason as they say -- McCain's advisors are relying in part on this uncertainty to try to keep reporters from contributing to, and solidifying, a narrative that portrays McCain as hopelessly behind. Such a narrative would hurt McCain's efforts, even in his own party. The pollsters make this argument clear at the end of the memo, when they write:

It is important that both the campaign, as well as reporters covering the campaign, not over-react to every single survey that is released.

The key for the campaign is to make sure that when the media is reporting on survey results, that they look beyond the horse race but also look at the survey’s methodology and demographics. We are now seeing polls, like the L.A. Times and Newsweek surveys, which are getting heavy coverage in the press, even though they clearly showed unusual results on party identification, as well as other demographics like age, in the case of the Newsweek survey.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.