Polls, propaganda and prevarication

The Baehr Essentials

Newsweek is out with the first post—debate poll by a major news or polling organization.  The poll shows John Kerry has regained the lead, running 2 or 3 points ahead of President Bush among registered voters, depending on whether Ralph Nader is included in the survey.  Bush supporters should avoid pulling their hair out. This poll means nothing.

Start with a few basics. The Newsweek poll indicates that by a 61%—19% margin, registered voters in the survey believe that Kerry won the debate. The survey also indicates that 74% of registered voters in the survey group watched the debate.  Stop here. Approximately 62 million people watched the debate on television. There are approximately 135 to 140 million registered voters in the country. So fewer than half of all registered voters saw the debate, but 74% of Newsweek's survey group did. Three networks conducted traditional post debate telephone surveys on who won the debate. Kerry won the debate according to all three surveys, but by margins of 9 to 16%, and ratios of 3 to 2 or 4 to 3. The Newsweek survey group thought Kerry won by about 4 to 1, and by 45%. Dinocrat.com has blown the whistle on the construction of Newsweek's sample.

Does this sound like a representative sample to you?  Did Newsweek merely interview the Washington press corps or the CBS News team?

On the night of the debate, within minutes, all the instant internet polls on six different networks showed 70 to 80% of respondents thought Kerry won. This was not surprising, whatever might have happened in the actual debate, since the Kerry campaign had organized an effort for its partisans to vote on all six surveys as soon as the debate was over. The DNC gave out specific instructions on the importance of doing so, and linked to all six sites.  Website shills like dailykos.com also provided the same links. The effort worked. In the spin room after the debate, Kerry aide Joe Lockhart was overheard commenting to Kerry aide Mike McCurry that the debate was a draw. But within a few minutes, as the instant web polls completed frantically by Kerry partisans showed that a big majority thought Kerry won the debate, the spin shifted to Kerry's decisive victory.

The Rasmussen survey interviews 1,000 people a night. Their survey showed no change in the results from Friday night (after the debate) from the the two previous nights. Only 6% of all those interviewed by Rasmussen on Friday night indicated that the debate would have any effect on their candidate preference— 3% more likely to vote for Kerry, 2% more likely to vote for Bush and 1% now more undecided.

The Democracy Corps, the Democratic polling operation of Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, also has a new post—debate poll that shows Bush is still ahead, but now by 2% instead of 4% as he was two weeks ago.  This probably means Bush is ahead by more than 2% of course, given the pollsters' bias (this poll has consistently been more favorable to Kerry than almost all other national polls throughout the year). The internals on this poll also show higher job approval ratings for Bush after the debate than before. Similarly two networks found that while more debate viewers thought Kerry won the debate than Bush, the margin between Bush and Kerry in the election preference of these same viewers did not change after the debate from before.  Bush remained ahead in both cases. The Los Angeles Times found a 1% shift to Kerry among those who watched the debate, and the paper, to its credit, clearly states that this group which watched the debate is not a representative national sample of the electorate.

You can bet that the Newsweek survey will be a big story the next few days. Kerry is ahead (the nation is safe).  The race is certainly not over. Bush clearly did not get a lift from the foreign policy debate that his camp might have expected.  The Kerry camp, which was in despair, however, has  gotten a major morale boost. But I still think Bush is in better shape than Kerry with just over four weeks to go.

The Electoral College map would change if there were dramatic changes in the national poll results. But if the debate bounce for Kerry is only a point or two, then the race is about where it was a week ago. That means Bush is ahead in all the states he won last time except for one, where he is tied with Kerry in New Hampshire. So of the 278 Electoral College votes in the 30 red states (270 needed to win), Bush is ahead in 29 states with 274 Electoral College votes, and even in one with 4.  Of the 20 states Gore won, Bush is ahead in two states — Wisconsin (10) and Iowa (7). In Wisconsin the lead is over 5 points in most of the polls, and in Iowa it is close to 5%. Bush is also only slightly behind in Michigan (17), Pennsylvania (21), and Minnesota (10). There are conflicting poll results in Oregon (7), New Mexico (5), and Maine (4).  Bush has a chance in all these states.  Two states that Kerry should have locked up by now, remain close: New Jersey (15) and Maryland (10).  The GOP is beginning to campaign in New Jersey, though Kerry must still be considered the favorite there.

How can Kerry win? Realistically, Kerry's best shot is to regain the lead in all the Gore states (260 Electoral College votes), and then win either Ohio or Florida. In Ohio, most surveys show Bush ahead by over 5 points.  However, the various 527 groups supporting Kerry have registered many new voters in the state, and the Republican Party in Ohio is in the midst of a civil war of sorts. In Florida, Bush is ahead in all polls, some by just a few points, some by more solid margins of 5 to 9 points. The hurricanes have clearly thrown the polling business in the state into turmoil. Many voters are unreachable. Turnout models may be unreliable.

If Kerry cannot break through in either Ohio or Florida, then assuming he wins all the Gore states (a big stretch at the moment), he would need to gain ten Electoral college votes from New Hampshire (4), West Virginia (5),  Nevada (5) and perhaps 4 from Colorado (if the referendum to split Colorado's Electoral College votes passes, which I suspect it won't).  West Virginia appears to be a fading prospect for Kerry. So the small state strategy is a real long—shot. The Kerry camp has already pulled most of its advertising from Missouri (11). No Southern states offer a realistic shot at a breakthrough for Kerry at this point. So for all practical purposes, Kerry must win Florida or Ohio.  If Bush holds on in Wisconsin and Iowa, then Bush could lose Ohio and New Hampshire, or Ohio and Nevada, and still win. That is a nice cushion to have.

 The Democrats seem to have gained an advantage in early absentee balloting in Iowa. They have also had a large number of new registrations in Nevada, New Mexico and Florida, among other states. Some of these new registrations are turning out to be duplicates of existing ones, or were filled out incompletely, or are for people long dead, or too young to vote, or in some cases, people who are not citizens.

This is what you get when you pay the solicitors of these new registrations on a per—head basis, and you hire felons to do the work. In some states, the bad registrations are being challenged (Florida) and in others (New Mexico), most are being allowed through. If Bush wins Florida narrowly, expect a repeat of all the charges of foul play, and voter suppression and intimidation that we heard four years ago. 'Count every vote — even the bogus ones from people who voted in New York' may become the unspoken rallying cry.

Unless we see a dramatic turn in the race, with Kerry even or ahead in several surveys with more realistic samples than the Newsweek poll, the President retains the advantage.  His first debate performance was far better on substance than Kerry's, and the ginned—up claque of pundits, polls, and prevaricators claiming that the race has turned around cannot change that. Kerry, after all, is now on the record stating that the United States must pass the 'global test' before taking action to defend itself. Expect to hear a great deal more about this, long after the first debate performance is a faded memory.

It is also worth remembering the history of Presidential debate winners.  Walter Mondale beat Ronald Reagan in their first debate in 1984 by 19% among those surveyed. Mondale went on to win one state.  Ross Perot won the first debate in 1992, and then won no states.  Michael Dukakis won the first debate in 1988, and went on to lose decisively.  The American people, to their credit, seem able to distinguish good debaters from the men they want to serve as Presidents. Don't be surprised if it happens again.