The ABC News/Washington Post released a poll today, which claims that Barack Obama is leading John McCain for President by 9 points. If that is so, just why is Obama so angry and short-tempered these days? A number of possibilities come to mind, but the most likely answer for me is that he knows those numbers are bunk. As Kim Priestap noted, the people running the poll weighted the responses by a 38-28 margin, with 29% listed as independent(question 901). But when they ask whether folks lean more towards the republican or democrat parties, it becomes a 54-38-07 weight (question 904). This is critical to the poll’s meaning, because the 52-43 Obama lead (Question 3) was extrapolated from the “net leaned vote”; in other words 54% of the response used was from democrats, versus 38% from republicans, and only 7% from independents.
The ABC/WP poll also did not break down support by party ideology, depriving the curious a simple way to see what folks really though within internal demographics. They also neglected to break down support by any other demographics, something which further degrades any claim to validity in the poll. I used the internal supports from the Gallup and Pew polls to reverse the calculations and found an interesting revision which shows what I consider a clearer picture, but for here I will just say that the ABC News/Washington Post poll shows what kind of problem Barack Obama really faces; the reality does not match the poll projections. Obama has a serious weight problem, and I don’t mean his cholesterol levels.
Every opinion poll taken this year has been weighted to show more democrats than republicans. There is some historical justification for that, but only to granting the democrats about 3 more percent of any respondent group. The weighting in polls produced by media sponsors, however, has at times been much heavier in democrat proportions, the ABC/WP poll being an egregious example. There is simply no rational basis for presuming that one party would be overwhelming in its representation. As an example, in 1984 Ronald Reagan absolutely crushed Walter Mondale, yet the republicans only represented 35% of the voters in that election. There have been minor fluctuations, but for more than three decades, party affiliation has been largely stable and predictable. There is simply no rational basis for claiming that either major party would have more than 39% of voters, or less than 32%.
Barack Obama is certainly capable of winning this election. He has a ton of money, the media is a team of Obama cheerleaders, and the public mood is desperate. But the polls released to the public do not reflect the actual level of Obama’s or McCain’s support, nor do they show an accurate pattern of support growth over time, or properly relay the time and source of momentum shifts and changes in support. When the polls are reverse-engineered and nominal weighting restored, it becomes clear that Barack Obama is depending on a three-tier plan for the election:
1. Barack Obama must collect at least 90% support from democrats nationwide; or
2. Democrats must make up at least 43% of the voters with present aligned support levels; or
3. Obama must collect at least 55% of independents’ support with present aligned support levels.
At this time, there is no evidence that any of the three conditions exist in fact. This is a serious problem for Obama with just the election a little over a month away.
For John McCain, the following conditions may result in victory, using the Obama plan as a template:
1. John McCain must collect at least 92% support from republicans nationwide; or
2. Republicans must make up at least 37% of the voters with present aligned support levels; or
3. McCain must collect at least 55% of independents’ support with present aligned support levels.
From the internal support reported by the polls, Barack Obama is presently 6 points below the 90% support level, while John McCain is presently 3 points below the 92% support level. Democrats historically represent 38-39% (4 below what Obama needs) of the voter pool, while republicans represent between 35-36% (1 below what McCain needs) of the voter pool. And depending on the poll, Obama enjoys between 42 and 48 percent support among independents (7 to 13 below his need), while McCain enjoys between 45 and 56 percent support among independents (he may need as much as 10 percent, or he may have what he needs right now).
There are several significant events between now and the election. The debates between Obama and McCain are yet to come, and the fallout from the financial crisis could well affect voter opinion. But right now, Obama has a weight problem, in that the election proportion of democrats in the actual election is not going to nearly match what the media is pretending it will be. While some believe the spin on these polls is meant to dismay McCain supporters and encourage Obama supporters, in the actual case this distortion could well come back and hurt Obama’s campaign.