Three Months From E-Day: What do the National Polls Tell Us?

Obama v Romney: polls in 2011 and 2012

We are approaching the final three months of the US Presidential race. Despite the hundreds of millions spent on advertising already, the polls have barely moved all year and show most Americans firmly in one camp or the other already, a nation ideologically polarised in a way it has not been for generations.

Obama v McCain: polls in 2008

In the Spring and Summer of 2008, Obama consistently polled in the 46-48% range against McCain. He led consistently but narrowly, and was unable to get to the magic 50% mark. The differences between national polling in 2008 and 2012 are minimal. While Obama just can’t break 50%, Romney hasn’t led in the much-watched Real Clear Politics polling average since the autumn of last year.

The incumbent’s job approval rating is probably the most studied polling number in US Presidential re-election campaigns. Gallup has been tracking Presidential job approval since 1937 (!) so there is plenty of historical data to sink one’s teeth into. An approval above 50% is held to more-or-less guarantee re-election, while Presidents’ re-election campaigns start to get into deep trouble as their approval drops into the mid 40s.

According to Gallup, in the year of Bush’s re-election campaign, his approval ratings the very high 40s and low 50s (his slide into the mire came during his second term). Obama has spent pretty much all of 2012 trading in a narrow range of 45-50% approval. Bush Jnr. won re-election narrowly enough, with a margin of barely 2% in Ohio making the crucial difference, so Obama, with slightly lower approval than Bush in 2004, is clearly in the danger zone.

For comparison, by the summer of 1980, Carter’s job approval according to Gallup was consistently in the 30s, as was George Bush Snr.’s in the summer of 1992. Gallup didn’t poll job approval for Gerald Ford after May 1976, but in the Spring, his approval ratings were in the high 40s, almost exactly mirroring Obama’s. Although Ford wasn’t re-elected, he lost Wisconsin by less than 2% and, you’ve guessed it, Ohio by a wafer thin 0.27%, and a reversal of both results would have seen him re-elected.

Obama’s approval rating puts him in the danger zone, but far from in the death zone. Perhaps the most reassuring factor from his point of view is that he is consistently polling better in the key swing states that will decide the election than he is across the country, a subject I will return to in a future article.

If it’s advantage Obama so far – albeit a narrow one – what might change things in Romney’s favour?

Looking back at 2008 campaign, there were three clear surges in the polls. Obama and McCain both had their respective convention bounces. It is difficult to remember that for a week or so, Sarah Palin helped McCain’s support surge before retreating just as quickly. Finally, through September and October, Obama’s poll ratings slowly, but steadily and relentlessly, climbed as he cruised to a comfortable win on the back of his dominance both of the airwaves and the ground campaign.

Will that happen this time? Obama had an enormous warchest in 2008, able to fund even an enormously expensive half-hour prime time documentary advertising spot. With Romney outraising Obama considerably and a 2010 Supreme Court decision effectively removing all restraint on third party spending on advertising in US political campaigns, Obama will almost certainly fight the final three months of this campaign at a significant disadvantage on the airwaves.

Obama has had one huge advantage over the Summer. Despite his huge warchest, the Romney campaign is pretty much unable to spend money until the Republican National Convention is over and the Primary Election campaign is formally over. American campaign finance laws say that money raised for a Presidential Primary campaign can only be spent during the period of the Primary. After the long and expensive Republican Primary campaign, Romney’s Primary campaign account is pretty much empty, and what is left needs to spent on salaries and field offices.

With Romney TV advertising presence minimal, Obama has poured money into advertising in swing states over the Summer, and much of it has been pretty brutal, seeking to define Romney as a tax-dodging plutocrat who made his millions from shipping American jobs to China. Swing state polls indicate this might be making a difference. Not only is Obama polling better where it matters, but Romney’s negatives are much higher in those places too.

In September, however, Romney will be able to blitz the airwaves. With third-party sympathisers already spending hundreds of millions attacking Obama, it’s hard to see a negative ad war from Romney himself doing much to change people’s opinions of a sitting President they already know a lot about. With Romney’s personal popularity ratings in the toilet, a smart Romney campaign will leave the Obama-bashing to outsiders and focus on building up their own candidate. Romney is, as we saw in London, an awful campaigner on the stump, however, and it may not work. But it seems to be one of the few paths available for Team Romney to break the election open.

As I noted above, the party conventions do move the polls, albeit usually briefly. Probably the only way to make the convention bounce last for Romney is to pick a Vice Presidential nominee who adds to the ticket. To me Chris Christie, the popular governor of New Jersey, is the candidate most likely to turn things round for Romney. With proven experience in governing and proven appeal to moderate swing voters, he adds a lot. If nothing else, he puts New Jersey and its 14 electoral votes in play and probably turns around a Romney campaign in neighbouring Pennsylvania which currently seems doomed.

The scuttlebutt is that Romney is wary of being eclipsed by Christie, as McCain was overshadowed by Palin in 2008, and is unlikely to take that option. That would be a major mistake in my view, but in that event perhaps the only other VP nominee with the potential to be a campaign changer is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. He is an effective campaigner with a bullet-proof CV and a compelling personal story, but will his deep economic conservatism play with working-class whites in the Midwest? All the other names in the frame strike me as Just Another White Dude and unlikely to make much difference either way.

The final factor which might be crucial in the final months is the campaigns’ ground operations. Obama has a huge network of field offices in place in swing states to organise door-to-door canvassing and get out the vote operations – 60 in Florida alone. He has also ramped up the already impressive level of technological sophistication and organisation his ground war team displayed in 2008. Many, including me, had assumed that he would not be able to recruit anything like the number of grassroots canvassers he had in 2008, but interestingly he is raising more money from small donors this time than he did last time. This is an area where Obama will have an advantage, but just how much remains to be seen.

Finally, there are the Presidential debates. While this is hardly an area where Romney naturally excels, he will be prepped by some of the best in the business and it has been a long time since a Presidential debate proved decisive in America. A desperate Obama, trailing a long way behind, may have felt compelled to use his undoubted debating skills to go for the jugular, but real life is not the West Wing, and Obama with a wafer-thin lead is unlikely to take major risks.

When all is said and done, if some major event external to the campaign doesn’t happen, the most likely scenario at this point seems to be that Obama grinds his way to re-election after a less than edifying campaign. With the economy in a mess, in the US and globally, and the Middle East a tinderbox, the capacity for ‘major events’ to happen is clearly large. Few of the possible major events are positive for Obama, who must now hope the campaign remains mired in trench warfare.

  • I think the key thing you miss here is the impact of independent voters and what proportion of those either candidate needs to win the general election.

    I just recently listened to a very interesting podcast with Professor David Brady at Stanford University on the US elections. He argues that if you were to remove independents, with only registered Dems or Republicans voting, that Obama would win. Furthermore, if you include independents and split that vote, Obama wins. Therefore Romney needs to take 60% of the independent vote to win.

    This is quite a simple view of things, admittedly, and does not take account of some of the factors you point out above. However Brady raises some really interesting points.

    The question we should be asking is – what do independents care about? What will swing their vote?

    It seems independents tend to be less politically informed on issues and candidates than registered voters, as one might expect. They also tend to care less about the big social issues than the two bases. Generally it is likely, as always, to come back to the economy. If unemployment falls soon – Obama has got it in the bag.

    Foreign policy strikes me as an issue that will not factor much in this election. Obama has looked very ‘Republican’ in his FP so far, and is definitely stronger than Romney in this area. However this is probably off-set by the historical view of Republicans as, what Brady calls, “issue owners” on FP. Romney would be wise to back off it.

    I personally don’t think that issues such as gay marriage, abortion etc. will figure massively in this campaign. This is about two questions: Can Obama be trusted? Does Romney have the credentials?

    Brady interestingly talks about two very basic questions from which wider meanings can be extrapolated:

    First, he tell us that one of the most reliable polling questions in relation to the final outcomes is – Who do you THINK will win?

    Second, there is a school of thought that many Americans vote on the basis of – Who would you rather have a beer with? (This obviously has a lot to do with likeability, familiarity, ability to relate etc.)

    Now if you asked most people these questions today – the answer to both would be Obama, in my humble opinion.

    The podcast is well worth a listen for those interested in an in-depth discussion, and interesting perspective, on the election –

  • The big challenge is how do you maximise your base vote to keep turnout up, without turning off the independents.

  • Thanks for the comments, Chris. Larry Sabato takes a very different view of the independents – see it is fashionable for voters to call themselves “independent” – both in how they respond to surveys or in their voter registration – polling data tell us that most people who claim to be independent really are not. A Gallup survey earlier this year noted that 40% of those polled identified as independents, but after “leaners” toward one party or the other were weeded out, the percentage of real independents was only about 10%.

    The number of Indies has surged in recent years even while American party politics has become more polarised. And indeed, polarisation has struck me as one of the main reasons for their rise, along with the ‘general bowling’ alone effect of people identifying less with institutions full stop. Moderate Dems and GOPers no longer want to identify with parties that have become too ideological for their tastes. But when it comes to election day, most are still basically Democrat or Republican voters. Both candidates are playing to their base in this election, and neither campaign team is stupid.

    As for the “who would you most like to have a beer with” question, polling is pretty clear. While Obama isn’t well liked, Romney sends the shivers down most people’s spines. I’m not sure there’s much he can do about that at this stage.

  • wild turkey

    “Although Ford wasn’t re-elected, he lost Wisconsin by less than 2% and, you’ve guessed it, Ohio by a wafer thin 0.27%, and a reversal of both results would have seen him re-elected.”

    Technically, americans don’t vote for a presidential candidate. they actually vote for members of the electoral college. For example, my overseas vote would ultimately go to the Connecticut election… and Obama pretty much has lock on Conn…. while Romney has defintely put the Con back in conservative.

    Anyways, Gerry, in the above quote you allude to the electoral college. what’s your take on the electoral college strategy of the two main candidates?

    “Romney sends the shivers down most people’s spines” probably because there is no evidence whatsoever that Romney has one.

  • DC

    Fraid to say wont matter a jot, both camps in the pockets of international finance and coca cola.

    America needs its own sort of stalinist purge on wall street.

  • DC

    It needs to push the reset button on itself, never mind on Russian relations.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Great article Gerry. A couple of comments (I am just back from the US and followed some of the politics on TV and, of course, the venerable pages of the New York Times).

    Firstly on the point about being “prepped by the best in the business” – you were of course referring to the debates but I thought it was interesting to see how poorly prepared Romney was on his trip abroad. On several occasions he clearly spoke off the cuff rather than from prepared or rehearsed remarks and I thought it made him seem rather un-Presidential.

    Second, I’d say Romney ads are outnumbering Obama ads by about 2-1. Obama’s main ad when I was there was of Romney singing “America the Brave” out of tune while statistics on the jobs he allegedly exported abroad etc are shown on the screen on a backdrop of closed shops and rusting factories. I saw two Romney ads a lot; the first seemed to talk about Obama burning huge amounts of stimulus money on friends and companies that sent the cash abroad or went bust. This ad suggested Obama ripped the country off. There was another ad run by one of the Romney PACs which had a similar message, but was softer, more like “it was a tough job, Obama tried and failed, now it’s time for someone else to take the helm”.

    I found all the ads on both sides that I saw to be unrelentingly negative. Apparently, the US public seem to respond to this kind of negative advertising. But I never saw an ad that explained what either candidate planned to do once (re)elected.

    As an aside, I have to say that there is a little bit of truth to the thought some Americans have that the media is broadly biased towards the liberal side. All the news channels that I saw ran opinion shows that were all shooting for the President, to the extend that Republican players wouldn’t appear on them to be interviewed. FOX is obviously the counterbalance to this but overall I found it hard to find out what the view on things from the right was.

  • Stalin,

    Two quick points.

    1) Out of interest, which state were you in? I understand in Texas and California there are almost no ads currently, given that they are seen as sure things. It would be interesting to see how much each campaign spends in each state.

    2) I always wonder how much the news shows actually impact on these things. Of course, they play some sort of agenda-setting role. But in influencing voter intentions, FOX News as the top cable news network, only gets a prime time peak of 1million viewers in a country of 314million…

    Just a couple of thoughts.

  • Kevsterino

    Here in the States, while the Presidential campaign lasts a long time, nobody is in a position to tell what is going to happen in November now, in August. Romney still hasn’t picked a running mate, and while the VP job seems insignificant, I think he has much to loose with a bad choice. I think Obama is going to make him look pretty foolish in a debate. Still too early to tell.

  • Kit_Carruthers

    Fantastic article. Some really interesting info too.

    The further comments on so-called independents are interesting too when considering that huge number of field offices and get out the vote operations.

    Let’s say the independents represent a spectrum of “softs”. I’m sure, as Larry Sabatto states, a lot can be pushed to reveal a preference, but would they be the most reliable voters?

    Identifying this portion of the electorate and motivating them to vote would suggest the need for a more vigorous get out the vote operation, which Obama seems to have in his armoury.

    Again, that points to the same conclusion that Obama can grind out the result simply by digging deep and doing nothing spectacular.

  • Kit_Carruthers

    On the debates. Surely all Obama needs to do is look Presidential? Romney must prove that he has what it takes to lead the country with no track record.

    In that sense, a strong debate is much more important. He must attack and hope that he can rattle Obama, but that runs a risk of coming of desperate and a bit second rate to the incumbent.

    Obama can be reserved and hope Romney gets excited and slips up.

  • DC

    An independent telling it as it is.

    Sen Bernie Sanders Amazing Speech:

  • Greenflag

    Romney will probably pick a VP from one of the key swing states to boost his chances . But in a very real sense it hardly matters except to the anoraks -who wins this election . The USA is in political gridlock regardless of who wins . Given the underlying polarisation it’s probably impossible for either the Democrats or the Republicans to win all three of the Presidency /Senate /House of Representatives with a sufficient majority that would enable them to implement the policy changes that they ‘wish’ .

    Thus another 4 years of political and economic stagnation and another 4 years of relative economic decline and another 4 years of economic emisseration for the USA lies ahead .

    DC’s youtube of Bernie Sanders above is indeed telling it as it is . Romney will of course try to buy a narrow victory by outspending Obama three to one in the last couple of months .

    Given the current state of the US economy the incumbent should be behind in the polls by about 10% but instead he’s ahead by a small margin . Obama will probably win but it won’t matter as financial capital will continue to dictate .Against that force it will take more than the efforts of the USA Government it will take the combined efforts of every remaining ‘democracy ‘ on the planet and as of now most of the governments and politicians are brownnosing their banksters and the international bondholders .

    Niall Ferguson in his excellent book “Civilisation’ the West v the Rest noted that what set North America (USA/Canada) apart from South America was that the former became prosperous because of their early development as property owning and voting democracies whereas the latter very quickly became societies where a tiny colonial elite ruled over a vast majority of ‘have nothings ‘ .

    Today in the USA over half the population have ‘nothing ‘ bar their next pay check and a few shiny baubles made in China.Another 100 million are ‘indentured servants ‘ to underwater mortgage loans -a trillion dollars of student debt and then theres a million plus bankruptices every year brought about by ‘medical emergencies’ in families where there is no Health Insurance .

    As Bernie Sanders states above there are elements among the very rich who are hell bent on creating even more destruction for the American middle class -As to the American absolute have nots ? Formerly this class was predominantly ‘white ‘ mostly in the big cities or in rural Appalachia and the South now they are everywhere scratching a threadbare existences on minimum wage if they’re lucky along with credit card ‘supplements’. This class is now becoming increasingly ‘brown skinned so as well as the colour inequality that was always there with a large section of the African American population this relatively new ‘brown ‘ increasing population is adding to the problem of income inequality .Meanwhile the ‘poor whites’ are becoming poorer and the ‘middle classes’ of all skin colours are being squeezed on all economic fronts from understated inflation to cuts in spending on health and education.

    The 1% do better than ever as Bernie Sanders makes clear above and income and wealth disparities widen . This will eventually end in ‘blood ‘ as it always does in such societies sooner or later .

  • Greenflag

    Whats happening in the USA is also underway in the UK and Ireland and elsewhere in Europe .

    ‘Indentured servants of the West you have nothing to lose but your Chinese baubles, pay day loans , education and credit card debt and ever more mass emisseration for your children (assuming you have any ) and your grandchildren (another assumption ) will have less than your grandparents unless your name is Rotschild (another assumption ).

    The western world began it’s self inflicted extinction in 1914 and the pace quickened in 1939-1945 . American and European birth rates are at their lowest in 25 years as the demographers tell us. By 2050 if current trends continue the ‘indigenous ‘ British will be a minority in their own country as per Niall Ferguson in his book ‘Civilisation’.

    As for ‘democracy ‘ and democratic values ? They will have long since bitten the dust before then in the USA and UK and Ireland and elsewhere as the vast majority of populations everywhere will come to understand that elected politicians financed by corporate and financial lobby interests are no longer representative of the people 🙁