What the Polls Tell Us


After months of intense campaigning, the result of the US presidential election on Tuesday will come down to two things: the turnout and the electoral college votes.

The national polls, despite some tightening in the last few days, still favour Obama as they have since McCain got hit by two election-changing events.

The first was self-inflicted in the form of Governor Sarah Palin. Initially, the largely unknown Palin was a shot in the arm for McCain. He got an immediate five-point boost in the polls as she re-energised the Republican base, which had been luke-warm about McCain’s candidacy.

Palin, whose fourth child has down syndrome and who likes to shoot animals, is still a very big deal with the pro-life, pro-guns folk of red-state America. She is far less popular with independents and disaffected Clinton democrats.

The second event was the economic tsunami that hit the campaign just after Palin did. The global financial crisis not only focussed attention on the Democrats’ key issue, but also revealed to voters that Barack Obama is calm under pressure — a trait that is highly desirable in a commander-in-chief.

Announcing that he was going to suspend his campaign on the eve of the first debate was McCain’s worst moment. He looked panicked. The debates went ahead and Obama won all three by a handsome margin and was rewarded with a growing acceptance among independent voters that he looked more presidential than the far more experienced McCain.

In the month following the Republican National Convention, McCain lost all of the 5 percentage points he had gained from Palin’s star debut. Over the past two weeks, McCain’s support has been moving up and down in a narrow band between 42 and 44 per cent.

Since his own Party’s convention in late August, Obama’s share of the vote has risen five percentage points to just over 50 per cent, its highest level this year.

Still, winning the campaign and leading in the polls are inconsequential if you can’t get your supporters out to vote for you. Obama has some hurdles to overcome in this regard.

The most obvious is that a lot of his advantage in the polls comes from people who have traditionally had a low attachment to the electoral process. These include young people, the poor, African-Americans and Hispanics. The Obama campaign is fearful that his lead in the national polls might induce some complacency and they are putting a huge effort into "getting out the vote".

Obama is being helped in this process by the extraordinary phenomenon of early voting — with no reason necessary — which is now allowed in over 30 states. Early voting usually attracts more Republicans but this year Democrats have been turning out in unprecedented numbers.

By Wednesday, 12 million Americans had already voted. A SurveyUSA poll in Ohio, released on 28 October, found that 22 per cent of the likely electorate has already voted, favoring Obama by a 56 per cent to 39 per cent margin, and polls show the two candidates are tied among the remaining 78 per cent. Early voting has been so heavy in Florida (2 million voted in the first eight days) that the Republican Governor agreed to increase the opening hours for polling from eight to 12 each day — a decision that was applauded by the Obama camp.

Then there is the "Bradley effect", the idea that white voters tell pollsters they will vote for the African-American candidate but change their mind in the privacy of the polling booth. The Bradley effect is controversial but even people who believe it once existed generally agree it no longer has any real significance, or it will be outweighed by an increase in the number of African-Americans voting this time.

Obama’s 50 per cent share of the national vote is high for a Democrat presidential candidate. John Kerry (2004) and Al Gore (2000) both got 48 per cent; Jimmy Carter got 50.1 per cent when he won in 1976. In 1992, Clinton won with 43 per cent in a three-cornered contest and was re-elected with 49 per cent in 1996. The last Democrat to score really big was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, who got a massive 61 per cent of the vote against Barry Goldwater.

The real contest, however, is over the 538 electoral college votes, which ultimately determine the outcome. On four occasions, the winner of the popular vote has lost the presidency, three times in the 19th century and again in 2000.

More often, a small popular vote win delivers a large margin in electoral college votes. Clinton, for instance, got 379 electoral college votes — 70 per cent — from his 49 per cent of the vote in 1996. The most narrow popular vote win in living memory was in 1960 when Kennedy beat Nixon by just 113,000 votes (0.16 per cent) but by a more emphatic 84 college votes.

Based on a consensus of the major polls, Obama has a lead of 10 per cent or more in states that add up to 255 electoral college votes — just 15 short of winning the presidency. They are California (55 electoral college votes), New York (31), Washington (11), Oregon (7), Michigan (17), Pennsylvania (21), Minnesota (10), Iowa (7), Illinois (21), Vermont (3), Maine (4), Rhode Island (4), Connecticut (7), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), District of Columbia (3), Delaware (3), Massachusetts (12), Wisconsin (10), and Hawaii (4).

Obama has many opportunities to get those extra 15 votes from a further 10 states where he is leading by less than 10 per cent. They are Nevada (5), Colorado (9), New Mexico (5), North Dakota (3), Missouri (11), Ohio (20), New Hampshire (4), Virginia (13), North Carolina (15), and Florida (27). As if this wasn’t enough, McCain is only slightly ahead (less than 5 per cent) in three other red states, Montana (3), Indiana (11), and Georgia (15), and Obama is challenging hard in these places too.

At this stage in 2004, Democrat candidate John Kerry, who ultimately fell just 19 electoral votes short of victory, was ahead by more than 10 per cent in states that added up to just 88 electoral college votes: Illinois, New York, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland and D.C.

Obama is leading McCain in nine states that Bush won last time. In four of those states, Obama’s lead is significant: Colorado (9 electoral votes), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20) and Virginia (13). McCain, however, has no obvious prospects of winning any of the states that Kerry won.

Unless, McCain can pull a big state off Obama he is doomed. That’s why he is campaigning in Pennsylvania. Even here, McCain needs a small miracle because Obama has a lead of 7 to 13 per cent in Pennsylvania in the latest polls.

The state by state electoral map is so heavily stacked in Obama’s favour that it is difficult to see anything other than a resounding Democrat win on Tuesday.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.