As we wait to see the extent and duration of Barack Obama’s post-convention bounce, it makes sense to do a little analytical house cleaning. In particular, a meme developed over the summer that Barack Obama was a strong favorite to win reelection, thanks to a sustained and substantial lead over his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, particularly in the swing states.
This impression has been facilitated in part by several factors: an aggressive Obama PR operation that courts the media in an attempt to create a “bandwagon” effect, registered voter polls that often over-sample Democrats, left-leaning journalists who often assume an Obama advantage; former Obama campaign consultant Nate Silver, whose black-box statistical model for the New York Times has shown an outsized lead for the president (and whose 2010 model gave Democrats a 20 percent chance of holding the House on Election Day), as well the proliferation of surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling, which does regular polling for the hyper-partisan union, the Service Employees International Union.
I want to look at the data from a different perspective. In particular, let’s look at non-partisan, likely voter polls that RealClearPolitics used in its averages from the month of August (multiple polls from the same pollster were averaged and counted only once). What do we see?
Considering the efforts of the Obama team to redefine Romney as a heartless plutocrat, it is interesting to see that, for all intents and purposes, this race was a dead heat last month among those who intended to vote.
A related meme that developed over the summer is that, while the national polls were close, Obama had a much stronger position in the swing states. But was that really true? Let’s run through the list.
Here is Ohio:
Here is Virginia:
Here is Florida:
Here is North Carolina:
Here is Colorado:
What inferences can we draw from these numbers? A few:
1. President Obama’s numbers were mired at or below 47 percent nationwide and the key swing states, despite the fact that he is universally known and has been running many ads to develop a lead.
2. Romney had a lead in North Carolina, while Colorado, Virginia, and Florida were effectively tied.
3. While Obama had a lead in Ohio, his numbers in that state were, on average, the lowest of all the swing states measured here except for North Carolina.
4. Obama has a larger lead in Wisconsin (48.7 to 46.7) and Michigan (47.5 to 45.3), but both states remain very tight. There was not enough polling to build a reliable average for Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, but given Romney's media buys and the electoral history of these states, it is a fair bet that the results there were basically similar.
5. After the convention bounce fades and after pollsters shift to likely voter screens, we should see a tightening of the race, and with it an adjustment of the conventional wisdom.
6. In terms of the national polling, Romney has regularly been even or ahead of Obama in the registered voter polls conducted by ABC News/Washington Post, Gallup and CBS News/New York Times. It stands to reason that if these polls had been likely voter instead of likely voter polls, he would have had a small national lead.
Final point: it has often been commented upon that Romney has not led at all in the summer, and that from a historical perspective that is bad news for the GOP. Untrue on both counts.
For starters, when we are talking about historical perspective, really the only poll that has been in constant, regular operation is the Gallup poll, where Romney and Obama were basically trading leads for months prior to the convention.
Additionally, the only challenger who successfully defeated an incumbent and had a comfortable lead all through the pre-convention summer period was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Both Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 were stuck in basically the same position as Romney was prior to the conventions.
Obviously, all of this could change. Historically speaking, convention bounces tend to be exactly that – bounces that fade over time. Romney enjoyed a modest bounce, and so far it looks like Obama is enjoying a 4-point bounce or so. My instincts tell me that by the time of the debates, we will be back to precisely where we were in August – both candidates essentially tied and stuck 3-5 points below 50 percent. Time will tell.
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.
Correction: This article originally stated inaccurately that Nate Silver's model "consistently placed the battle for the House as a tossup." The author regrets the error.