Polls: Obama or McCain Is Winning

Two months ago I argued  in these pages that Barack Obama will not win this year's presidential election.  My prediction was based on essential factors about Obama himself -- his inexperience, his tax-and-spend liberalism, his history of race consciousness -- that make him an unacceptable choice to lead the nation in this time of difficult foreign and domestic challenges.  I remain convinced that, on Election Day, most American voters will refuse to pull the lever for a candidate who falls so far outside the political and cultural mainstream of the country. 

While hardly a compelling candidate himself, John McCain offers the American people more experience, a proven track record of legislative and diplomatic leadership (albeit one that does not lack controversy), and an unquestioned history of patriotism and service to the country.  These qualities matter greatly to voters.  McCain said it well at the end of this week's town hall debate:  "When times are tough, we need a steady hand at the tiller, and the great honor of my life was to always put my country first."  This is a winning message.  Despite running a mostly lackluster campaign, McCain remains the better candidate to serve as the next President of the United States. 

Ever since I wrote my anti-Obama piece, I have received numerous emails from Republicans and Democrats alike, asking whether I still think Obama will lose the election.  Yes, I do.  But what about the polls, they ask?  The polls show that Obama is winning.  No, they don't, as I will explain. 

But let me note, first, that the widespread, and indeed intentional, misreporting about what the polls allegedly show is one of the most frustrating -- and ultimately harmful -- aspects of the presidential campaign season.  Why harmful?  Because if the supporters of Barack Obama, which include the mainstream media, most of the intelligentsia, and almost all black Americans, believe that their candidate is "winning" the race, but then he loses on Election Day, they are very likely to conclude that the election was "stolen."  It will be what we saw in 2000, only worse, because of the intense emotional investment that so many people have in Obama's candidacy.  Whether or not, as some irresponsible commentators have suggested, there will be violence in the streets if Obama loses, it will be deeply damaging to the nation's social fabric for John McCain's election to be challenged from the start as illegitimate.

Now to the polls.  There are three basic reasons to be skeptical about the validity and accuracy of polls:  First, there is the well-known problem of bias that results from how polls are worded.  Second, the raw data for the polls almost always is "adjusted" by the pollsters to give more weight to the Democratic responses.  And third, the results of the polls almost always are within the reported "margin of error."  The first two issues would require a detailed analysis that is beyond the scope of this article.  But the third issue clearly proves my point that Obama is not "winning" the race. 

As illustrations, let's look at three national polls, taken from the Real Clear Politics website:   the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from October 4-5; the Reuters/C-Span/Zogby poll from October 7; and the Rasmussen poll from October 8. 

According to the NBC/WSJ poll, Obama is leading McCain among registered voters nationwide by a margin of 49% to 43% (these figures combine those who said they supported and were leaning towards the respective candidates).  So Obama is winning, right?  Not so fast.  The reported margin of error for the poll is +/- 3.8 points.  The "margin of error" is simply the amount of potential error in a poll's results.  This means that the results of the poll actually could be McCain 46.8% and Obama 45.2%.  Very close, but with McCain ahead.  The poll also includes 8% of respondents who said they were undecided.  These undecided voters might decide to vote for McCain.  Certainly there is no reason to assume they will vote for Obama.  In short, this poll does not show that Obama is winning.  At most it shows that Obama might be winning.  On the other hand, it also shows that McCain might be winning. 

Similarly, the Reuters/C-Span/Zogby poll shows Obama leading McCain among likely voters nationwide by a margin on 47.7% to 45.3%, with 7% undecided.  The margin of error for this poll is +/- 2.8 points.  Based on the data from this poll, therefore, McCain could be leading Obama by a margin of 48.1% to 44.9%.  If the undecided voters decide to support McCain, the eventual margin of victory could be even larger.  Again, this poll does not necessarily show that Obama is winning.  Indeed, the pollsters correctly noted that "[t]he race for President of the United States remains far too close to call."      

Lastly, the Rasmussen poll shows that Obama is leading McCain among likely voters nationwide by a margin of 51% to 45%, with 4% undecided.  The margin of error for this poll is +/- 2 points.  A-ha!  Obama definitely is winning according to this poll (that is, assuming the undecided voters do not "break" for McCain).  But there is something curious about this poll, which relates to the second issue I raised above about polls.  This poll "weighted" its responses to reflect a predicted voting population of 39.3% Democrats, 33.3% Republicans, and 27.4% unaffiliated.  However, in the last presidential election, just four years ago, the party affiliation of actual voters (according to the CNN exit poll) was 37% Democrat and 37% Republican.  Perhaps Democrats are going to "out vote" Republicans by 6 points this year, but I think this is a very dubious assumption.  In any event, there is no reason to accept the results of the Rasmussen poll over those of the other two polls (or over the results of many other polls I could have examined).

Before concluding, let's look at a typical poll of the races in two important "battleground" states.  This poll was done by CNN/Time on October 7 (also taken from RCP).  According to this poll, Obama is leading McCain in Ohio, 50% to 47%, and in Wisconsin, 51% to 46%.  The headline for the poll:  "New Obama gains in battleground states."  Yet the margin of error for the poll was +/- 3.5 points.  This means that, based on the results of the CNN/Time poll itself, McCain could be leading in Ohio by a margin of 50.5% to 46.5% and in Wisconsin by a margin of 49.5% to 47.5%.

Of course, in the past several weeks there have been polls showing McCain leading the race nationally and in the battleground states.  Are the results of such polls simply to be disregarded?  On what grounds?  Why should the polls that show Obama in the lead be given more weight than the polls that show McCain in the lead?  Such reporting reflects the bias of the mainstream media, not the “truth” about how the American people are going to vote this November.  Moreover, the idea – implicit in the daily fluctuations of the polls – that large numbers of American voters are regularly switching back and forth between McCain and Obama makes no sense.  Who knows any real people who are going through such mental and political gymnastics?

In short, the polls do not show that Obama is "winning" the race, anymore than they show that McCain is "winning" the race.  What they show is that the contest is very close, and will not be decided until election day -- when the American people actually go to the polls and cast their votes. 

For the reasons I've stated before, I predict that more votes will be cast for McCain than for Obama.

Steven M. Warshawsky is an attorney  in New York City. 
Two months ago I argued  in these pages that Barack Obama will not win this year's presidential election.  My prediction was based on essential factors about Obama himself -- his inexperience, his tax-and-spend liberalism, his history of race consciousness -- that make him an unacceptable choice to lead the nation in this time of difficult foreign and domestic challenges.  I remain convinced that, on Election Day, most American voters will refuse to pull the lever for a candidate who falls so far outside the political and cultural mainstream of the country. 

While hardly a compelling candidate himself, John McCain offers the American people more experience, a proven track record of legislative and diplomatic leadership (albeit one that does not lack controversy), and an unquestioned history of patriotism and service to the country.  These qualities matter greatly to voters.  McCain said it well at the end of this week's town hall debate:  "When times are tough, we need a steady hand at the tiller, and the great honor of my life was to always put my country first."  This is a winning message.  Despite running a mostly lackluster campaign, McCain remains the better candidate to serve as the next President of the United States. 

Ever since I wrote my anti-Obama piece, I have received numerous emails from Republicans and Democrats alike, asking whether I still think Obama will lose the election.  Yes, I do.  But what about the polls, they ask?  The polls show that Obama is winning.  No, they don't, as I will explain. 

But let me note, first, that the widespread, and indeed intentional, misreporting about what the polls allegedly show is one of the most frustrating -- and ultimately harmful -- aspects of the presidential campaign season.  Why harmful?  Because if the supporters of Barack Obama, which include the mainstream media, most of the intelligentsia, and almost all black Americans, believe that their candidate is "winning" the race, but then he loses on Election Day, they are very likely to conclude that the election was "stolen."  It will be what we saw in 2000, only worse, because of the intense emotional investment that so many people have in Obama's candidacy.  Whether or not, as some irresponsible commentators have suggested, there will be violence in the streets if Obama loses, it will be deeply damaging to the nation's social fabric for John McCain's election to be challenged from the start as illegitimate.

Now to the polls.  There are three basic reasons to be skeptical about the validity and accuracy of polls:  First, there is the well-known problem of bias that results from how polls are worded.  Second, the raw data for the polls almost always is "adjusted" by the pollsters to give more weight to the Democratic responses.  And third, the results of the polls almost always are within the reported "margin of error."  The first two issues would require a detailed analysis that is beyond the scope of this article.  But the third issue clearly proves my point that Obama is not "winning" the race. 

As illustrations, let's look at three national polls, taken from the Real Clear Politics website:   the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from October 4-5; the Reuters/C-Span/Zogby poll from October 7; and the Rasmussen poll from October 8. 

According to the NBC/WSJ poll, Obama is leading McCain among registered voters nationwide by a margin of 49% to 43% (these figures combine those who said they supported and were leaning towards the respective candidates).  So Obama is winning, right?  Not so fast.  The reported margin of error for the poll is +/- 3.8 points.  The "margin of error" is simply the amount of potential error in a poll's results.  This means that the results of the poll actually could be McCain 46.8% and Obama 45.2%.  Very close, but with McCain ahead.  The poll also includes 8% of respondents who said they were undecided.  These undecided voters might decide to vote for McCain.  Certainly there is no reason to assume they will vote for Obama.  In short, this poll does not show that Obama is winning.  At most it shows that Obama might be winning.  On the other hand, it also shows that McCain might be winning. 

Similarly, the Reuters/C-Span/Zogby poll shows Obama leading McCain among likely voters nationwide by a margin on 47.7% to 45.3%, with 7% undecided.  The margin of error for this poll is +/- 2.8 points.  Based on the data from this poll, therefore, McCain could be leading Obama by a margin of 48.1% to 44.9%.  If the undecided voters decide to support McCain, the eventual margin of victory could be even larger.  Again, this poll does not necessarily show that Obama is winning.  Indeed, the pollsters correctly noted that "[t]he race for President of the United States remains far too close to call."      

Lastly, the Rasmussen poll shows that Obama is leading McCain among likely voters nationwide by a margin of 51% to 45%, with 4% undecided.  The margin of error for this poll is +/- 2 points.  A-ha!  Obama definitely is winning according to this poll (that is, assuming the undecided voters do not "break" for McCain).  But there is something curious about this poll, which relates to the second issue I raised above about polls.  This poll "weighted" its responses to reflect a predicted voting population of 39.3% Democrats, 33.3% Republicans, and 27.4% unaffiliated.  However, in the last presidential election, just four years ago, the party affiliation of actual voters (according to the CNN exit poll) was 37% Democrat and 37% Republican.  Perhaps Democrats are going to "out vote" Republicans by 6 points this year, but I think this is a very dubious assumption.  In any event, there is no reason to accept the results of the Rasmussen poll over those of the other two polls (or over the results of many other polls I could have examined).

Before concluding, let's look at a typical poll of the races in two important "battleground" states.  This poll was done by CNN/Time on October 7 (also taken from RCP).  According to this poll, Obama is leading McCain in Ohio, 50% to 47%, and in Wisconsin, 51% to 46%.  The headline for the poll:  "New Obama gains in battleground states."  Yet the margin of error for the poll was +/- 3.5 points.  This means that, based on the results of the CNN/Time poll itself, McCain could be leading in Ohio by a margin of 50.5% to 46.5% and in Wisconsin by a margin of 49.5% to 47.5%.

Of course, in the past several weeks there have been polls showing McCain leading the race nationally and in the battleground states.  Are the results of such polls simply to be disregarded?  On what grounds?  Why should the polls that show Obama in the lead be given more weight than the polls that show McCain in the lead?  Such reporting reflects the bias of the mainstream media, not the “truth” about how the American people are going to vote this November.  Moreover, the idea – implicit in the daily fluctuations of the polls – that large numbers of American voters are regularly switching back and forth between McCain and Obama makes no sense.  Who knows any real people who are going through such mental and political gymnastics?

In short, the polls do not show that Obama is "winning" the race, anymore than they show that McCain is "winning" the race.  What they show is that the contest is very close, and will not be decided until election day -- when the American people actually go to the polls and cast their votes. 

For the reasons I've stated before, I predict that more votes will be cast for McCain than for Obama.

Steven M. Warshawsky is an attorney  in New York City.