Are the polls tightening?

Some polls show McCain cutting into Obama's lead. Others don't. What to believe?

By Vincent Rossmeier
Published October 31, 2008 12:35AM (EDT)

Are the polls tightening? That's the question that article after article is asking in these last few days before the election. Wednesday, Rasmussen Reports released a poll that showed Barack Obama's national lead among likely voters had dropped to three points, 50 percent to John McCain's 47 percent, which is Obama's smallest lead in the poll in more than a month. Fox News' most recent poll has Obama leading by just three points as well. And new polls from Quinnipiac University Polling Institute show Obama's lead narrowing in the crucial swing-states of Florida and Ohio.

But a Quinnipiac poll also showed Obama has maintained his substantial double-digit lead in Pennsylvania. And and both have Obama with around a six percentage point lead based on aggregates of national polls. So the question remains: Do the polls show John McCain mounting a comeback or not?

Many Republicans would certainly like to think so. Below is a video clip of Bill O'Reilly posted on the conservative blog RedState, in which O'Reilly discusses a Rasmussen poll released Thursday that found voters favoring McCain over Obama on taxes and the economy by a slim margin. O'Reilly thinks its a sign that voters' fears of Obama could lead to a turnaround for McCain on election day.

Except it's far from that clear cut. Right now, the various national polls are giving us a lot of mixed signals. They're like the woman you went on a date with once, but who then didn't return your calls for two weeks, until suddenly -- when you'd finally given up on her for good and deleted her number from your cell -- she phones you out of the blue and asks if you want to meet for dinner. Confusing indeed.

The latest CBS/New York Times poll is the newest example of that phenomenon. It shows Obama above 50, and holding on to an 11 point lead among likely voters; specifically, he leads 51-40. This is down two points from the previous CBS/New York Times poll, but this tightening is still within the poll's margin of error.

In a post on his blog for the Atlantic, Marc Ambinder highlights a key point about the recent polls. He writes, "Barack Obama's numbers aren't moving downward. McCain's are moving a bit upwards. (Was he really going to get 39% of the vote?)... In the battlegrounds, except for in McCain's internal polling, there has been NO appreciable tightening. None. Actually, that's wrong. There's been tightening in red states. Georgia. Montana. North Dakota. South Dakota. Arizona." The states Ambinder mentions were supposed to be locks for McCain.

And a certain amount of poll tightening seems to occur immediately before the election almost every year. As Brian Palmer observed in Slate on Sunday, from 1944 to 2000, in 10 of the 15 presidential races, "the candidate who was leading in the polls on Labor Day saw his margin shrink by the time of the final poll." And while Palmer offers up a variety of explanations for this phenomenon, no one knows for sure what accounts for the tightening. Polls aren't a perfect science, after all.

Ultimately, as Politico's Jonathan Martin points out today, national polls are somewhat irrelevant. As everyone who passed seventh grade civics (or who lived through the 2000 election) remembers, we don't decide presidential elections based on a nationwide vote, but rather on a state-by-state basis. By that measurement, as of right now, Obama still maintains a firm lead. Pollster and Fivethirtyeight both have Obama winning Tuesday with over 300 electoral votes. Fivethirtyeight gives McCain only a 4.3 percent chance of winning. And Obama is up in Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado -- if he wins those states, the national polling doesn't matter.

For that reason, and others, even if the race does tighten, McCain still might not be able to catch-up. Speaking on a Fox News roundtable, conservative columnist  Charles Krauthammer pointed out, "[Obama] has one other advantage -- people who went out and voted early. Pew poll is right that it's heavily Obama by a 10 percent margin. And if it is a third of the vote or even near that, that means McCain has to win among the others by five percent on Election Day to draw even and have a tie. And that's highly unlikely."

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.