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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The State of the Race

There's been a lot of talk about this dynamic race - "game changers" and "moments" and things of that nature. Regular readers of mine know that I don't subscribe to the view of politics inherent to that kind of analysis.

As an alternative to discussing Fannie, Freddie, lipstick on pigs, hacked emails, and patriotic 1040 filers - I thought I would put some simple numbers on the board to give us a sense of exactly what has changed since June 3rd.

I've broken the national polling into two sorting categories. First, we sort by pollster. We group the Gallup polls together, then the Rasmussen polls, then the remaining polls.

Second, we sort by date. We group the polls for June, then for July, then for August prior to the conventions, then for today.

Here are the results.

McCain v. Obama.gif

Let's analyze the data by one pollster category at a time. Rasmussen had fewer undecided/other voters to begin with, and this group has declined in size over time. Since June, the gain has been to McCain - though Obama is currently better positioned than he was in July or August.

We find something similar with the other pollsters (and the "today" category reflects the polls in the current RCP average that are not from Gallup or Rasmussen). Today, Obama is basically where he was in June while McCain is 4 points better off. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of undecided has dropped by 3.7 points. Combined with Rasmussen, this suggests that McCain's convention helped him solidfy his core electorate. My general rule of thumb is that candidates should receive at least 45% of the vote in an open, two-way race. With the completion of a successful convention, McCain has now reached this floor.

Gallup shows something different. It had Obama performing more weakly at the beginning of the summer - and today it has him up. Meanwhile, McCain has barely improved since June. This implies that Obama, not McCain, has benefited from the drop in undecided voters. Of course, Gallup has moved very dramatically over the last three days. Such movement has not been uncommon for Gallup's daily tracker. It bounced a good bit for Obama's Europe trip, then the Democratic convention, then the Republican convention. Each time it has slowly made its way back toward a tighter race. Obama's recent bump in Gallup might correspond to market jitters, and it will be interesting to see if, as the jitters subside, Gallup finds a tighter race.

Let's analyze the race from a higher altitude. What do we see?

We see remarkable stability. Contrary to what one might think if one's only source for information was the political class - there has not been a lot of movement. The movement we have seen seems to have been pretty orderly - with McCain solidifying his Republican base.

We also see a group of undecided voters who have not yet made a choice. They will probably be decisive. In a race with only two salient candidates - the goal is to hit 50%-plus-one. Both McCain and Obama can still do that via the undecided voters, who are becoming the critical voting block.

I am not surprised by the fact that neither candidate has yet obtained enough support to win. This is an open election with no incumbent to evaluate, nor even a candidate from the incumbent administration. This is a bad year for the Republican Party, but the GOP nominated a guy who has built a reputation opposing his own party. The Democrats nominated a candidate with a background dramatically different from any major party nominee in American history. Between 4% and 8% of the country still does not know what to make of it yet. They were probably part of the 7% to 12% that were undecided in June.

My intuition is that this group is going to sort itself out late. I'd guess that they are the true independents, i.e. those without strong party attachments. [Many people say they are independent but they actually behave like partisans.] I'd also wager that they have not been paying a lot of attention yet. The debates might move them, but I wouldn't be surprised if these folks sort themselves out in late October.

It is not unreasonable to expect a close race. Some perspective is called for here. We have in our collective memory the blowouts of 1984, 1972, and 1964. However, presidential elections in the 19th century were persistently close. Between 1876 and 1896 - all five presidential elections were decided by 5% or less. The country was also closely split in the ante-bellum period. Between 1836 and 1860, only William Henry Harrison was able to pull substantially more than 50% of the vote. Typically, one saw multi-candidate fields, as the two major parties (Democratic and Whig) were unable to organize politics into the binary choice we have today. So, sustained periods of close elections and even splits in public opinion are as much a norm as anything in this country - and we might have recently re-entered such a phase.

-Jay Cost