Saturday, August 2, 2008

Running Scared

The Toronto Star nails it:
Just when you think you've got the presidential race figured out, something comes along to upend your carefully wrought conclusions.

Mainstream media provided lavish coverage of Barack Obama's trip abroad the week of July 21 and predicted he would get a bounce in the polls. Some of his supporters believe he has put the election away. Other observers employ the hackneyed and meaningless phrase, "it's his to lose."

The poll numbers tell a different and more nuanced story.
Indeed, for the second day in a row, Gallup has Obama and McCain tied at 44%. Today'sRasmussen Daily Tracking Poll put's Obama at 44% and McCain at 43%.

ElectoralVote.com gives Obama the advantage (316-209).


But a closer look at the battleground states shows a closer race.


The race is tightening. It's not a creation of the mainstream media. It's reality. Is he still leading? Sure. But that lead is smaller. After the barrage of negative advertising from the McCain campaign, this was to be expected.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?

For most of 2007, the conventional wisdom was that Hillary was going to win the Democratic nomination. She had all the advantages. She was the inevitable nominee. Nobody took Obama seriously until the polls begin to tighten in December. Hillary ran as the nominee in waiting, the fortress candidate, assured of a resounding victory on Super Tuesday.

When that victory did not come, she changed her strategy and Hillary the Populist Warrior stepped out on stage. With her back to the wall, running scared, Hillary became a formidable candidate. After re-tooling her campaign, despite being dramatically outspent and dismissed by the MSM and the commentariat, she racked up victory after victory. On the day her opponent clinched the nomination, she won the South Dakota primary.

The point I'm making is that realizing the possibility of defeat made Hillary--and McCain, for that matter--a better candidate.

After Hillary conceded, Obama got a bounce in the polls. And he's been widely seen as the front-runner ever since. "It's his race to lose," the commentariat repeatedly has repeatedly told us. Have any of us seriously entertained the possibility of defeat since Hillary endorsed Obama? Has Obama?

There's been some grumbling on our side of the blogosphere about how the mainstream media is talking down Obama's numbers, trying to make the race seem closer than it actually is. The reality is that pollsters cannot declare a candidate in the lead if that lead is within the margin of error. That is the nature of statistics.

Does Obama still have the advantage? Of course. But we need to be careful about overstating that advantage. If the primaries showed us anything, it's that over confidence is the enemy. Candidates run better if they are running scared, fighting for victory, rather than confidently running down the clock. Perhaps contemplating defeat, tasting that fear just one time, will make Barack Obama a better candidate, too.

4 comments:

Dizzy said...

Great diary! Good analysis and IMHO an accurate read on the situation. Plus, it has the added merit of me agreeing with you ;-)

DCDemocrat said...

This is a very good diary, psychodrew, though I am not sure that I make as much of the daily tracking polls as you do. There is very little data that demonstrates much strength in McCain's campaign. Maybe it would be more comfortable if Obama were 10 points ahead in every polls, but the preponderance of data suggests he has been and continues to be ahead of McCain in this race. It is not untrue to say it is Obama's to lose. Unfortunately, it is also not impossible that he might lose it.

Psychodrew said...

Dizzy--Thanks!

DCDem--All of the polls, including daily tracking polls, are merely a snapshot in time. You can't read too much into them. But they can tell you something that the other (once a month) polls don't tell you--a trend.

I think the preponderance of the polling data shows that Obama is in the lead and that this race is his to lose. It will be referendum on him as the majority of voters would rather vote for a Democrat but feel they can live with McCain.

But this overconfidence is making me nervous. Now that we see some evidence of a tightening in the polls, some on our side are complaining about an MSM bias. I think that we need to start running scared, like we are ten points down.

As Clintonistas, we should know better than others that over-confidence can be lethal.

DCDemocrat said...

Hi, psychodrew. The polls use different methodologies and measure different kinds of populations and have different margins of errors. They all basically tell the same story, that is, that Obama is slightly ahead of John McCain and has been since the beginning of June. I like pollster.com a lot more than Real Clear Politics. Real Clear Politics simply does an average of polling numbers. That means that a poll with a sample of 500 gets weighted the same as a poll with a sample of 3,000. Pollster dot com cleans the data, so that a small sample is not treated not a large sample. It basically has Obama up over McCain by five points using this method. I think that number is quite defensible.

If Obama were down or tied in the electoral college and if McCain was leading in half the polls, the daily tracking polls would be more meaningful. Is five points a comfortable lead? No. But it has been consistent.

I believe unnecessary hand-wringing is perhaps as dangerous as unwarranted over confidence.
I believe in a steady eye that take the true measure of the race as it stands.

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