Conservatives are growing worried, and Democrats gleeful, about Obama’s lead in the polls, basically for the same reason: it is late in the season (or so it seems), and the incumbent president has a lead. That is a good thing for Obama.
Perhaps, but three fundamental points need to be kept in mind.
First, Obama is weaker than previous incumbents who went on to victory. When we are looking through history, the only poll we can really utilize is Gallup if we want an apples-to-apples comparison. For better or worse, Gallup is the only polling organization consistently doing polling of registered voters since 1952. Even media outlets that have been polling a long time have changed pollsters over the years, so Gallup is the only game in town when we are investigating history.
Here is where Gallup has found incumbent presidents at this point, i.e. roughly mid-September, since 1956.
Through 2004 every incumbent who was above 50 percent at this point won, and every incumbent who was under 50 percent at this point lost. As of today, Obama is under 50 percent.
Additionally, most incumbents end up winning by a smaller margin (or losing by a larger one) than they are sporting in the Gallup poll at this point. The exceptions are Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Gerald Ford in 1976 (who closed his rather large gap with Carter down to virtually nothing by Election Day), and George H.W. Bush in 1992 (whose position at this point was skewed by the temporary exit of Perot from the campaign). On average, the margin moves by 3.7 percent in favor of the challenger between the mid-September Gallup registered voter poll and the Election Day results.
The second point to keep in mind is that, yes, we are late in the season, but so was the Democratic National Convention. This president still appears to be enjoying a post-convention bounce. If you look at many of the polls in most of the RCP averages – both national and state – their survey dates began within one week of Obama’s speech. If we figure that a bounce period lasts for two weeks, then no polls have been conducted outside the bounce period.
To appreciate just how late the DNC was this year, consider it in relation to past incumbent conventions in the postwar era.
In fact, this year’s DNC was the latest incumbent convention in American history! That absolutely has to be taken into account when examining the president’s standing in the polls, and it means we would be wise to discount his margin by a little bit.
Third, Obama and Romney have basically been trading leads in the Gallup poll since May. The only postwar incumbent who did not pull away early in the registered voter poll and still won was George W. Bush, whose victory also happens to have been the narrowest margin for an incumbent since 1916. (Truman trailed in polls of national adults through the summer and fall of 1948.)
The bottom line: Historically speaking, this president is in weaker shape than any postwar incumbent who went on to victory, with the possible exception of Harry Truman; he is enjoying a convention bounce later in the cycle than any incumbent in the postwar era; and if he manages to win, it will probably be via a true squeaker, with plenty of twists and turns to come.
Democrats are celebrating and Republicans panicking prematurely. I’d wait until October 1 to see where the race is before I give anybody a decisive edge one way or the other.
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.