Blizzard of Polls

I thought about reacting to this week’s presidential polls in batches or according to particular themes, but gave up. As usual, Nate Silver has the best quick summary, which includes a slight dash of cold water to those Obama supporters thinking the last Marist poll from this or that battleground state means the election is over and we can all just go home:

[W]e’ve suddenly gone from having perhaps two state polls released every day to more like a dozen. (There has also been an increase in the number of national surveys.) When this happens, there can be the tendency for the news media to focus on those polls that confirm its current narrative about the race, while ignoring those that might tell a different story.

The state polls are more newsworthy, I suppose, if you had been skeptical about the notion that Mr. Obama had gotten a bounce, and needed further confirmation. Mr. Obama’s probability of winning has increased over the last few days at betting markets like Intrade and as according to bookmakers. There was not much reason to doubt that Mr. Obama had gotten a bounce, however, so this may simply mean the conventional wisdom was a little slow to catch up.

To put it another way, it’s reasonably clear now that Obama has moved into a small lead (though within the MoE of most polls) after the two conventions ended, a trend that is now being confirmed in state polling. But the size of that lead, from infinitesimal to significant, varies enough to make it important to look at all the evidence instead of a selective picture.

Certainly the behavior of the Romney campaign during the last week has given the impression of an operation that needs to take risks, as one that is nearing various signposts in public opinion where past campaigns have almost invariably failed.

And moreover, some of the new state polls–particularly the new batch out late yesterday from WSJ/NBC/Marist–show Obama hitting some major markers, as noted today by Nate Cohn:

The bigger splash came from three surveys conducted by NBC/WSJ/Marist in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, which showed Obama leading by substantial 7, 5, and 5 point margins among likely voters, respectively. Perhaps as importantly, Obama was at 49 or 50 percent in all three states.

The underlying numbers were just as troubling for the Romney campaign. In all three states, Romney’s comeback chances start with gaining the support of undecided voters, but just 25 percent of undecided voters in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia held a favorable impression of Romney, compared to 43 percent for Obama. Now, Obama’s 43 percent tally is hardly impressive, but it would appear more than high enough to block Romney from sweeping every undecided voter in these three states, which is essentially what it would take for him to fight to a dead-heat. Overall, a prohibitively low 40 percent of Ohio voters have a favorable impression of Romney.

At some point, therefore, if current trends persist, a lot of the factors cited for a long time by Republicans as disguising an underlying Romney lead–e.g., the use of RV rather than LV samples; the antipathy of undecideds towards Obama; the incumbent’s failure to reach the magic 50% mark in either support or job approval–just don’t seem to be borne out by what we are now seeing. Add in the historical evidence (as explained by John Sides in a new article for the Monthly which will be discussed separately) that the presidential debates don’t typically have much of an impact on the results, along with the positive economic signs emerging this week, and you do get the sense Team Mitt is starting to run out of time. But the race remains close enough that it wouldn’t take a miracle, just some breaks and better candidate performance, to make the home stretch the cliff-hanger it’s long appeared to be.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.