Republicans have been cheered by the news this week that John McCain has been inching closer to Barack Obama in the daily tracking polls run by Rasmussen, Gallup, and Zogby.
This is true — but only when one cherry picks the results. Professional pollster Mark Blumenthal took a look at all six of the daily tracking polls for Sunday and came to a very different conclusion.
We now have all six of today’s national daily tracking results, and the trend since Thursday (the last day in which virtually all interviews were completed before Wednesday night’s debate) remains mixed. If we treat the Gallup “extended” likely voter model as their number of record, we have four surveys showing slight gains for McCain (Gallup, Daily Kos/Research2000, Diageo/Hotline and Reuters/Zogby), and two showing slight gains for Obama (Rasmussen and IBD/TIPP). The pattern is even less consistent if you choose to Gallup’s registered voter model (one-point Obama gain), their “traditional” likely voter model (no change), or focus on all three. Either way, if the debates have caused a significant shift in vote preference, it is not yet big enough to be detected consistently by these tracking surveys.
Considering that the slight narrowing of the race this past week meant that John McCain was trailing nationally by an average of 7 points compared to 9 or 10, it is unclear just what Republicans might be celebrating. History shows only one candidate trailing by 7 points this late in the campaign who came back to win it: Ronald Reagan.
And the uncertainty associated with the turnout models those numbers are based on makes most polls showing this a close race suspect. The fact is, early voting in some states might indicate a larger than normal turnout of African Americans and young voters — two groups where Obama has a sizable advantage. Since pollsters can really only model based on history, any trends outside of their historical experience become very difficult to decipher.
On October 26, 1980, Ronald Reagan trailed President Jimmy Carter 46-39%. This was two days before their one and only debate. In that debate, the avuncular Reagan proved himself a suitable alternative to Carter by not appearing to be someone who would blow up the world, as Carter was slyly intimating throughout the fall campaign.