The most recent RealClearPolitics average of the national polls shows President Obama holding a 3.1 point lead over Mitt Romney, 49.1 to 46.0. Additionally, his net job approval rating is now back to about even, 48.8 approve to 48.5 disapprove.
It's important not to buy the left wing spin that this race is over: it's not even close to being over. Here's why.
First, October is the month of voter decision making. A lot of the polls that show a narrow Obama lead are actually “pushing” undecided voters to make a decision. This will make for interesting swing in the polls as these people move back and forth, but it nevertheless misrepresents the level of uncertainty that remains in the electorate.
Indeed, consider this chart, taken from exit poll data, on the timeline of voter decision-making.
Granted, most of those “undecided” voters are actually partisans (albeit, soft ones) who will wait until this month until going for the candidate that we always knew they would back. But, nevertheless, the pure swing vote is most certainly included in the share of the electorate that will make up its mind from this point forward.
Second, Team Romney has been raising money hand over fist – as we all know – but have largely held off in spending it. So has the broader GOP constellation – the Romney campaign, the RNC, and the super PACs. To appreciate that point, consider the following chart of total advertising spending from the GOP through mid-August.
It’s worth keeping in mind that, as of August 31, that Romney, the RNC, and Restore Our Future had about $191 million dollars on hand to spend. Clearly, very little of it was spent on television ads in September.
Why? The answer gets back to the first chart: The core swing voters are just now starting to make up their minds. Recall Romney’s basic theory of the race: he has 47 percent of the vote locked in, and so does Obama; that means it is a battle for that final 6 percent. These people are not won via a marathon, but by a sprint through this month; via television advertising as well as the debates, they come to make up their minds.
The polls right now are pushing these people to offer a tentative opinion, but as a recent Rasmussen poll showed, only something like 43 percent of Obama and Romney’s voters are totally locked in. There is a lot of room for movement; it will happen mostly in October; and that’s why the GOP has largely held off spending its vast cash reserves.
Or, as was supposedly said during the Battle of Bunker Hill: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
Third, polls can move quite a bit from October 1 through Election Day. Right now, the Gallup poll of registered voters shows Obama up 6 points on Romney, but 6 points worth of movement is virtually nothing in the month of October. Consider these Gallup registered voter polls taken on or almost before October 1:
[Note: I'm using the Gallup poll of registered voters not because I think it is an ideal poll. I do not; instead, I much prefer likely voter polls at this point. The utility of the Gallup registered voter poll is that it traces back through history to 1952. No other poll does this.]
The only two years where there was not major movement in the Gallup poll of registered voters relative to the final result was 1988 and 2008. Otherwise, we see pretty substantial breaks in one direction or another – in some years, like 1972, 1984, and 1996 the leader has enough of an edge to endure the rise of his opponent. In other years, like 1968, 1976, 1980, 2000 and 2004 we see enough movement that the entire race is turned inside out.
Again, this should make sense in the context of the first chart: When you have upwards of a third of voters making their final decisions this month (or early November), is it any surprise that the polls swing so wildly?
In other words, Obama’s lead of 6 points among Gallup’s registered voters (or his lead of 2.5 points in the recent, reliable likely voter polls) is great to have, but at this point is by no means determinative.
Put simply: This race has just begun.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.