Obama’s surge fizzles out

Polls released over this past weekend suggest that Barack Obama’s September run-up in the polls has been blunted. Most often, now, the president is just below the magic 50 percent threshold that an incumbent must eclipse. Recently I speculated that Obama might be showing signs of breaking a long-standing rule of thumb of polling by securing reelection in the face of majority sentiment that the nation is headed in the wrong direction, on the wrong track. Now I am not so sure. His brief surge above 50 is showing signs of petering out. 

Failed comebacks are always a bad sign of things to come. The Obama campaign threw everything it had into an effort to kill Mitt Romney even before he and Paul Ryan got seriously under way. The vicious advertising assaults of his Chicago-style hit men pushed all the hot buttons, from China to tax returns, and still could not close the sale. Axelrod’s army was also giving away lots of freebies to the usual suspects in September, trying to buy its way back into the hearts of wavering groupies. Free federal money has been proffered and the adoring masses of 2008 are still playing hard-to-get. What’s a guy under 50 to do? He stormed and bullied. He wooed and purred. He sent flowers and chocolates. But all he got was 48. Close, but he still isn’t getting lucky.

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It’s worth going over the 50 percent rule of thumb and the logic behind it, as some observers still don’t seem to get it. I see pseudo-sophisticated political analysis all the time discussing Obama’s lead in the polls, seriously touting his 4- to 5-point lead, depending on the poll, over the Republicans. Consider a poll released over the weekend by the respected Des Moines Register surveying the key swing state of Iowa. The newspaper’s story trumpeted, “President Barack Obama leads Republican nominee Mitt Romney 49 percent to 45 percent in the battleground state of Iowa, a new Des Moines Register Iowa Poll has found.” Nowhere in the newspaper’s analysis of this poll (at least online) was any reference to Obama being below 50 percent and the significance thereof. In Iowa, everyone thoroughly knows the president and what he’s selling. He has spent millions selling his alleged accomplishments and damning Romney all across the state. Yet he can’t get an inch over the goal line. The rule says that if you haven’t yet decided to vote for the incumbent, you won’t. So 49 percent may be all Obama gets in Iowa, leaving Romney at 51. Everyone not decided for incumbent Obama will default to the challenger. That’s the rule.

Even getting right on top of 50 percent in the polls might not be enough. I have observed in past elections involving very visible incumbents, particularly those running extremely negative, torch-and-burn campaigns, that a small slice of voters will say they are voting for the incumbent but eventually don’t. These voters are literally scared to tell a pollster that they are not planning to vote for the bully in office. After all, if you openly oppose the incumbent, he may come and hurt your family or cause you to lose your job or student loan or take away your entitlement. Better just to tell the pollster that you’re all in and later cast a ballot for change in the privacy of the voting booth.

I also think that race might still be a factor, too, in polling results. There are voters who would like to vote for change but cannot tell the pollster they are abandoning the black man. It would seem too racist to reject him. But in private, the yearning for new directions will prevail. 

Under 50 percent today is a bridge too far.


David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.