Why do so many pollsters say Obama is leading?

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My formative experience in politics came at age 16, when I ran the Goldwater campaign in Columbia County, Wis., because the senior party leaders wanted nothing to do with him. I was sure Barry would win because ... because I wanted him to.

As you may recall, Barry didn't win. Ever since, I've been able to distinguish pretty well between what I'd like to have happen in an election, and what I think will happen. I haven't been wrong about the outcome of a presidential race since 1964.

President Barack Obama is cruising toward re-election, most polls indicate. The signs I read say different.

No president with a job approval below 50 percent has ever been re-elected. Nor has any president aside from FDR been re-elected when the unemployment rate was higher than 7.4 percent. There's a first time for everything. This could be the year those things happen, and the year in which undecided voters don't break heavily toward the challenger. But that's not the way to bet.

The polls that show President Obama with a lead beyond the margin of error assume he and his party will be as or more popular than they were in 2008, when Democratic turnout exceeded GOP turnout by 7 percentage points.

But Democrats have bested Republicans by an average of just 3 points in elections since 1984. There was a tie in 2004, another in the 2010 midterms. This year will be more like 2004:

• In a Rasmussen poll in August, for the first time ever, more respondents said they were Republicans than said they were Democrats.

• Voter registration in both parties is down, but the decline among Democrats is 10 times greater.

• Republicans are more excited about voting, according to a Fox News poll Sept. 28.

• Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan draw larger and more enthusiastic crowds than the president does.

Factor all this together, and partisan turnout figures to fall between D+3 and R+1.

A CNN/ORC poll last week showed the president ahead, 50 to 47, but Mr. Romney leading by 8 percentage points among independents. He led by 4 among independents in two other polls released last week. Mr. Obama won independents, 52-44, in 2008.

Up to 18 percent of white Democrats may cross over to vote for Mr. Romney, according to a Rasmussen poll in July. Far fewer Republicans will vote for the president. So if Mr. Romney wins independents, and partisan turnout falls between D+3 and R+1, Mr. Obama can't be ahead. Why do so many pollsters say he is?

• A skyrocketing refusal rate produces a Democratic skew, because Republicans are more likely to hang up on pollsters. Pew Research has a response rate of just 9 percent this year. There was no answer in 38 percent of households. In 53 percent, someone answered the phone, but wouldn't take the poll.

• To save money, some pollsters randomly dial numbers rather than work from a known sample of registered voters. This increases the skew toward Democrats.

But many polls have partisan samples that aren't even in the same time zone as reality. (It was D+19 in one Pew poll.) Skews so great rarely are accidental.

"Democrats want to convince [anti-Obama voters] Romney will lose to discourage them from voting," said GOP pollster John McLaughlin. "So they lobby the pollsters to weight their surveys to emulate the 2008 Democrat-heavy models."

Major pollsters have samples of Republicans at "low levels not seen since the 1960s" he said. "The intended effect is to suppress Republican turnout through media polling bias."

Contrary to what those who slant polls want you to believe, this election is in Mitt Romney's hands.

At this point in 1980, Americans believed Jimmy Carter was a failed president, but weren't sure the alternative would be better. In their debates, Ronald Reagan convinced them he would be, and won 489 electoral votes.

A Reaganesque result isn't possible for candidates of either party in today's highly partisan, bitterly divided political atmosphere. But most Americans already have decided Mr. Obama's job performance is unsatisfactory. Mr. Romney hasn't yet persuaded us he'd be do better -- though his debate performance Wednesday was a big step in that direction. He could win comfortably if he does.


This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1476.


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