Obama vs. Romney: Your guide to poll-watching

Between now and the presidential election in November, there’ll be hundreds of polls weighing Mitt Romney vs. Barack Obama. Here’s some advice on how to sort through the numbers.

(L.- r.) Jae C. Hong/AP, Carolyn Kaster/AP
Polls show a very close race developing between Republican Mitt Romney and incumbent Barack Obama.

Between now and the 2012 presidential election – just 198 days as this is written, folks! – you will see enough polls to make your abacus freeze up.

At this point, it all seems a blur, this Monitor “DC Decoder” headline being the most brutally honest: “Mitt Romney vs. Barack Obama: a squeaker or a landslide?”

So what’s a political junkie to do as the daily numbers keep pouring forth? What should we be paying attention to, which ones rejecting?

On his FiveThirtyEight blog at The New York Times, poll watcher Nate Silver lays out his twelve-step approach to poll analysis. (Just coincidence that 12 is the same number as many addiction recovery programs? I don’t think so.)

Topping the list: “Be patient.”

“Many of the poll-watching habits you learned for the primaries you will need to unlearn for the general election,” he writes.

In the general election, “there are fewer swing voters, the candidates are better known, and voter preferences are more rigid,” which means that “polls have a much stronger tendency to revert to the mean, and what is perceived to be ‘momentum’ is often just statistical noise.”

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Other bits of poll-watching advice from Mr. Silver: Take the poll average (Real Clear Politics is very helpful), pay attention to likely voters versus registered voters, keep paying attention to President Obama’s approval ratings, look at a robust array of economic indicators but be careful with economic forecasts, read the polls in the context of the news, and don’t over-learn the lessons of history. 

“There have been only 16 presidential elections since World War II,” he writes. “That simply isn’t a lot of data, and overly specific conclusions from them, like ‘no recent president has been reelected with an unemployment rate over 8.0 percent’ or ‘no recent incumbent has lost when he did not face a primary challenge,’ are often not very meaningful in practice and will generally not carry much predictive weight.”

There are other things to keep in mind too – like how election winners actually are chosen and the demographic weights and balances at play.

“We’d remind you that even though you'll hear about nationwide head-to-head polls, you should remember that the election will be decided in the electoral college, and that a handful of battleground states will determine which way the race swings,” write Jason Linkins and Elyse Siegel in their Huffington Post “Speculatron Weekly Roundup.”

New Hampshire is one of those key swing states whose electoral votes Obama will want to retain,” they write. “Similarly, when you're looking at Obama's approval ratings, remember that while the nationwide result tells a general picture, the approval ratings in places like Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, and Pennsylvania tell you so much more.”

So, over coming months, read polls regularly but carefully and skeptically.

And now, just because we know you love them so much, here are some of the latest poll droppings…..

In its first daily tracking poll of registered voters, Gallup this past week has Romney at 47 percent, Obama at 45 percent with independents breaking toward Romney by 45-39 percent.

On the other hand, a Pew poll gives Obama the lead, 49 to 45, and a Quinnipiac survey has Obama up 46-42.

In what the Washington Post calls a “likeability gap,” Obama is clearly ahead of Romney: 56-35 percent in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll and 48-33 percent in a NBC-Wall Street Journal survey.

Then, of course, there’s the gender gap.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll Tuesday gives Obama a 14-point lead on Romney among women likely to vote in November's general election, 51 percent to 37 percent.

Also, notes Reuters, “Despite Republicans' efforts to portray themselves as the party of the family, Obama even had a big edge on family values among women, with 51 percent picking him as better on that issue compared with 36 percent for Romney."

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