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Morning Jay: How to Read the Polls

6:00 AM, Aug 24, 2012 • By JAY COST
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This actually explains much of the Democratic advantage 2008. A 20 percent increase in the black vote relative to 2004 helped boost the Democratic share of the electorate to 39 percent; meanwhile, some Republican voters started calling themselves “independents.” They still voted for McCain, however, which explains why Obama only won the independent vote by 8 points, compared to the 20-point victory House Democrats enjoyed in 2006.

Applying this historical perspective to today’s polls, I think it is unlikely that we are going to see a Democratic advantage equal to or larger than the D+7 Obama enjoyed in 2008. I see something closer to the historical average of D+3. That’s just a guess, albeit an educated one.

And when I look at partisan splits in the polls, the farther a poll moves away from D+3, the less I am willing to take a “naïve” view of it, i.e. just look at the head-to-head margin. Instead, I look closely at the way the independent vote is leaning, as that is a good gauge of where the race actually stands. As a general rule of thumb, if you see President Obama leading in the overall numbers but losing among independents, it stands to reason that the poll is more Democratic than what we shall see on Election Day.

Another strategy is to look at trends within polls. That can provide a sense of the motion within the race without getting hung up party identification.

Finally, an average of all the latest polls can ameliorate the problem, to some extent. Compare Obama’s average lead or deficit to the average Democratic identification edge (among the voters), and you can get a solid gauge of the state of the race. For instance, consider these polls currently included in the RealClearPolitics average. All of them provide the head-to-head numbers between Obama and Romney as well as the partisan identification of those included in the poll.

Right now, the average across the polls is about a one-point lead for Obama; there's also a Democratic registration advantage that fits in with the long-term trend. That suggests to me that right now, this is a pretty solid take on the state of the race.

As some polls cycle in and other polls cycle out of the RCP average, that might change. A few weeks ago, Obama had a larger lead but the Democratic identification advantage was also larger on average. In that case, the best bet was to discount his margin over Romney by a little bit.

The best advice is just to remember that it’s still only August. We are some 75 days from the election and that means it is very difficult to get a read on that all-important inner circle, the elusive subsample of the adult population that actually will vote. So, all polls need to be taken with a grain of salt. These strategies are just meant as practical ways to deal with what remains a basically intractable problem.

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.

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