Election 2012: What the Polls Don’t Tell Us

Romney and cookies.jpg

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Mitt Romney meets with a group of Pittsburgh-area residents, April 17, 2012

We keep being told that the general election is underway, though in a sense it never wasn’t. The candidate often referred to as “presumptive”—so much so that one might think that is Mitt Romney’s real first name—a Romney adviser tells me, all along campaigned as much against Obama as he did against his primary opponents. Oddly, the only Republican contender the Romney camp was truly worried about was Newt Gingrich. But it was able to sink Gingrich during his short period of seeming to be plausible by unleashing a bombardment of attack ads (leaving a bit of cloud over Romney’s primary campaign).

Meanwhile the President and his advisers only briefly considered that the opponent would be other than Romney, and so the President got off a few barbs aimed at him—such as mocking Romney’s describing his own budget proposal as “marvelous”—not a word, the President said, one would use about a budget, or at all. However now that both candidates have all but officially nailed down the nomination, there are some important things to keep in mind as we watch the national campaign unfold.

The Polls

Lest we get overwhelmed, I would suggest not paying much if any attention to the numbers till at least after Labor Day, and, better yet, late October. Even then, elections can break at the last minute. The 1980 election sweep, which ended in Ronald Reagan crushing Jimmy Carter and nine incumbent Democratic senators, wasn’t detected until the final weekend before the election and, many election experts believed, was set off by the Iranians’ last-minute refusal to release the American hostages. The polls can tell us what problems the candidates face but they aren’t very useful for assessments of how the election will turn out.

Differing results in the polls about who is ahead stem from the fact that they employ varying assumptions about whom to count, and also differing assumptions about how participation in 2012 election should be compared to that in 2008. The turnout for Obama in 2008 was out of the ordinary because of unusually high participation by minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics, as well as younger voters drawn by the excitement stirred up by his candidacy. But as a general rule it would be unusual that a president running for reelection was backed just as enthusiastically as before. (All rules about voting have exceptions and one of them is that the results, obviously, can vary depending the opponent.) The victor has to govern, and make choices that are likely to disappoint his followers to some extent. The question is to what extent Obama’s choices—and also exogenous circumstances—will cause a letdown.

Polls about turnout that are based on the historic norm, rather than the unusual 2008 turnout, reach a result less favorable to Obama than those that adjust their assumptions to reflect the 2008 result. For example the Gallup tracking poll hovers more closely than the others to normal turnout rather than 2008, and thus shows a six-point lower non-white turnout, which leads to a result less favorable to Obama than the other polls show. As for the polls’ methodology, most at this point count registered voters; but the methods used by the Rasmussen poll are more favorably toward Republicans.

In fact, upward of 98 percent of the voters have already decided, and so the ferocious battle will be over the small remaining number of undecided voters. Al Hunt of Bloomberg points out that the “swing voters” in the election will be those groups that voted for Obama in 2008 and for the Republicans in 2010: among them married women with children; suburban independents, and Catholics who aren’t regular churchgoers. Also key to the outcome, according to Hunt, is the intensity of turnout among evangelicals who regularly support Republicans and among Hispanics who are alienated by Romney’s strong anti-immigration stands during the primaries.

And as of now the Obama campaign, as it did in 2008, has greatly out-organized the opposition—to the extent that as of now there’s reason to question the efficacy of Romney’s campaign staff.


While it is widely assumed that the unemployment numbers (now 8.2 percent) will have a major impact on the election, there’s reason to doubt that they are actually all that important. For example, Professor Ray Fair, of Yale, has argued that a much more important marker is how much the economy (the GDP) has grown per person during certain periods before the election. His formula is complex, but according to some analysts his measurements have turned out to be highly accurate when applied to previous elections. (There are in fact hundreds of models and great battles are waged over which is the soundest; reputations rise and fall over this.)


Moreover, various experts have pointed out that the jobs that are being created on the whole pay much less than workers’ previous ones, and the benefits, if they are given at all, are considerably reduced. And those already holding jobs are also receiving lower benefits. Thus, even if the unemployment figure continues to drop—a trend widely considered essential to Obama’s political fortunes—there are probably other job factors that determine how the voters consider the economy. And the unemployment numbers are unreliable because they jump around at the slightest flicker—the weather, holidays, employment cycles — and are often substantially revised later, when more information is available. A long-running argument goes on about whether it’s the number itself or the trend that matters most.


The outcome of a presumably close election thus rides on how swing voters ultimately decide what they think about Mitt Romney; their views about Barack Obama are pretty well fixed, even though he remains somewhat opaque to many. The two most interesting questions about Romney are whether he can become a more steady candidate, and what is it that causes him to stumble and say oafish things. The frequency of Romney‘s displays of awkwardness is something rarely seen in a party’s nominee. The nature of Romney’s stumbles—his wife Ann has “a couple of Cadillacs”—is also unusual. The important thing about these slips is that they go beyond being the stuff of jokes and mockery, to raise questions about what kind of president Romney would be.

He just cannot help reminding audiences that he’s very wealthy, and often comes across as simply uncomfortable in dealing with those outside his own narrow world. It’s not just that both he and Ann were raised in plush circumstances—she perhaps even more so, with nannies and horses in the posh Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills—but that neither of them seems to understand how different their lives have been from that of all but a very few. This may explain why even going for the presidency he didn’t bother to pull out funds he’d stashed away in the Cayman Islands or Switzerland or hold off in expanding their home in La Jolla in a $12 million renovation, including an elevator for the four-car garage. The symbolism of such things goes well beyond the “tin ear,” and suggests a paralyzing inability to understand the circumstances of most others: What else can explain Romney’s look of disgust as he disdained the cookies the hostess had placed before him when he met with a middle class group around a picnic table in Bethel, Pennsylvania? ( “I don’t know about those cookies”—which in his narrow-vision he perhaps thought had come from a 7-11.) These stumbles go way beyond George H. W. Bush’s lack of familiarity with grocery store bar codes. How are the voters, and if he were to become president the citizens, going to react to this kind of talk?

In 2004, relating the young married couple’s hardship living a basement apartment while they completed their studies at Brigham Young University, Ann Romney said that if things got too difficult her husband sold some stocks his father had given him. The couple’s apparent sole interest in sports is horseback riding and their one sports passion is dressage horses (which cost an estimated $250,000-$300,000 a year to maintain). Being wealthy doesn’t automatically mean that a politician cannot connect with the middle class or the poor: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F Kennedy, for example, were at ease about their good fortune, and both could see well beyond their manicured estates.

Romney thinks he is very funny—he and his wife say so—and he laughs a lot at his own jokes, but his jokes tend to be duds, and he lacks wit. He doesn’t get it that telling a group of waitresses that he’s unemployed wasn’t terribly funny. It got less so as it was revealed that he is being paid about $20 million by Bain Capital for doing nothing for the company. Romney is square—and a lot of the people prefer a square, especially if they feel there is something to fear or simply dislike about a more hip and flashy candidate. They might feel safer with a square. Especially one who looks like a Norman Rockwell President.

Romney’s problem is that even if he had compassionate instincts he’s trapped by the fact that he has been running for the nomination in a party that had moved so far to the right that any suggestion that he cares for the plight of others could have endangered his prospects. Thus, in February he told a large and powerful group of conservative Republicans that his record as Governor of Massachusetts was “severely” conservative—ad-libbing the adverb. Romney’s ease in revising the truth goes beyond even the norms of expediency and suggests an unusual absence of core guiding political principles. It also may reflect a discomfiting weakness. A politician in a position of great power without principles and weak is, well, alarming.


The Republican Party

Romney’s candidacy has to endure other boulders that could drag it down: the benighted policies being adopted in several states under Republican control, having to do with new abortion restrictions, limiting the vote, weakening unions. Meanwhile, Congress’s approval rating is at an all-time low, and some research suggests that the party that controls the House pays a price when the Congress is unpopular. Romney’s embrace of Paul Ryan’s highly regressive budget plan—once shunned by Republican leaders but now favored because they had no other and Ryan is a very articulate and dogged figure—will make it harder for him to “move to the center,” as has been so widely expected. The Right may have no alternative candidate now and many are declaring their support for him (metaphorically holding their nose) but that doesn’t mean that they will embrace Romney with the fervor he needs in order to get them to turn out. “Staying home” isn’t a passive act.

And other variables may upend traditional polling assumptions. Both candidates face similar problems: each needs to be liked more; even though Obama swamps Romney in this count, dislike of the President is at 40 percent. (Race undoubtedly still matters.) Thus both stress their families; most of Obama’s online ads feature him with his wife and children or feature just Michelle Obama, who is far more popular than he is.

Neither man can take this contest for granted and neither can any of the rest of us.

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