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Sometimes, the more you study a race, the less you know

I’d love to know what is going on in this presidential race — and as a pollster I really should. Instead of enhancing my overall understanding, though, the plethora of polls too often leads to a net loss of knowledge.

For the moment, make the heroic assumption that national polls have meaning and try to tease from them answers to three key questions.

Is the race narrowing?

Trend trackers who put the full panoply of polls through their favorite formula suggest it is. They calculated a 4- to 5-point Obama margin in June, now diminished to about 2 points. Of course those analysts crunch all the polls, including extreme outliers like the recent Zogby survey giving McCain a 5-point lead. Four other overlapping polls pegged Obama’s lead at 2 to 5 points — a rather significant difference.

Examining the results of some high-quality polls over time is another way to gauge change. Gallup is in the field most frequently, conducting interviews each night. Press headlines not withstanding, their surveys reveal remarkable stability. Most often, Obama’s support has varied within a very narrow band, ranging from 44 percent to 47 percent, on rare occasions reaching as high as 48 percent and as low as 43 percent. McCain has moved mostly between 42 percent and 45 percent.

Gallup’s other poll, with USA Today, suggests Obama gains, as he turned a 4-point July deficit into a 3-point lead this month.

CNN suggests the opposite, as a 7-point Obama lead in their poll last month faded to a tie in the wake of Obama’s vacation.

Confused? Wait.

The ABC/Washington Post poll just came out of the field with 49 percent of likely voters for Obama and 45 percent supporting McCain. That is exactly zero change in the Obama vote since their July survey and a 1-point decline in McCain’s support.

Pew’s poll gave 46 percent to Obama and 43 percent to McCain, a 1-point decline for the Democrat since July and a 1 point increase for McCain.

CBS/New York Times and NBC/Wall Street Journal polling suggested only slightly more movement, with the margin tightening by 3 points since July in both surveys.

So one poll suggests Obama gains, another McCain on the move, but most reveal impressive continuity.

Have underlying assessments of Obama or McCain changed?

A little.

Obama’s favorability rating in the August ABC/Post poll is identical to those recorded in July, while McCain’s favorables are up 2 and unfavorables down 2. Obama’s ratings remain stronger than McCain’s on this measure.

While Obama still enjoys a healthy 11-point lead as the candidate trusted to deal with the economy, this is the narrowest lead he has enjoyed on this central issue.

What was a 5-point advantage for McCain on Iraq is now even, though McCain slightly expanded his lead on dealing with international affairs. Obama still has the lead on energy, though McCain has narrowed the gap by 4 points, while Obama has taken the lead on being a stronger leader, moving up a net of 8 points.

So, marginal changes beneath the surface, with both candidates able to claim some gains.

Have the underlying fundamentals changed?

Perceptions have — a little.

Bush and the war remain exceptionally unpopular, though assessments of both have improved slightly. Fifty-seven percent believe McCain represents a continuation of Bush’s policies —2 points more than in June.

However, while voters continue to be extraordinarily negative about the economy, evaluations have improved from their low points in July. Last month, 90 percent were telling Gallup the economy is getting worse — in August that’s “down” to 76 percent.

Imposing order on this tangle of data requires oversimplification and creates distortion, leading to a net loss of knowledge.


Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.