Recent polling – especially in key battleground states – shows President Barack Obama with a widening lead over challenger Mitt Romney. It’s dispiriting to Republican leaders, and it would seem to put more wind into the Obama campaign’s sails headed into next week’s first presidential debate.
But among conservative commentators and some in the GOP, that just proves one thing: That the polls are rigged to give Democrats an apparent advantage, and that the mainstream media is buying into what amounts to a conspiracy by playing up such survey results.
“They're trying to wrap this up before the debates even start,” Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show this week. “I think they're trying to get this election finished and in the can by suppressing your vote and depressing you so that you just don't think there's any reason to vote, that it's hopeless.”
The essence of the complaint is that pollsters are basing their reports on too many Democrats having been surveyed – that when results showing Obama ahead by 6-8 points are properly weighted by party affiliation, the race is dead-even with Romney actually ahead in some places.
The response from professional pollsters is that any difference in the party balance of those surveyed is a reflection of how voters identify themselves today: 35 percent Democrats, 28 percent Republicans, and 33 percent Independents.
As both campaigns know, it’s also a fluid situation with how voters identify their party leanings right now more important than how they last registered. It’s why both campaigns are angling for cross-over voters and especially Independents. If Obama and Romney were to get everybody who identifies with their party plus half the Independents, Obama – today, at least – would win by 7 points.
“Party identification changes as political tides change,” Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief, wrote this week in his response to the controversy. “General shifts in the political environment can affect party identification just as they can affect presidential job approval and results of the ‘Who are you going to vote for?’ question.”
Gallup puts its question to voters agreeing to be surveyed this way: “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent?”
“Note that this question does not ask, ‘What was your party identification in November 2008?’ Nor does it ask, ‘Are you registered with one party or the other in your state?’” says Mr. Newport. “Our question uses the words ‘as of today’ and ‘consider.’ It is designed to measure fluidity in political self-identification.”
The key thing for campaigns and those reporting on them is too look at the bigger picture over time. Today’s snapshot – and this includes polls by the relatively conservative Fox News and Rasmussen Reports – shows Obama ahead during this period between the party conventions and the debates.
"If I don't focus on an individual poll here or there and look at the dynamic of the race, and the broad array of polls, it tells me that the president has a significant lead at this point," Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, told Reuters.
A related conservative complaint is that reporters and editors can become too obsessive about opinion polls.
“This produces headlines and TV coverage that seem intentionally designed to demoralize Republicans and persuade undecided ‘swing’ voters – who have a tendency to vote for the candidate they perceive as the likely winner – to support Obama,” writes Robert Stacy McCain at the American Spectator. “That such poll-driven coverage could function as a self-fulfilling prophecy – in fact creating the result it pretends to predict – is an increasing worry for conservatives.”
Not all conservatives are beating up on poll-takers and the media over the string of voter surveys showing Romney trailing in the race.
“I’ve been in politics long enough to know that the louder one side gets complaining about the polls, the more likely it is that this is the side that, in reality, actually is losing,” Erick Erickson, editor of the RedState blog, wrote this week.
“The reality is that Mitt Romney is behind, but that does not mean this thing is over,” Mr. Erickson writes. “It is close and Romney can very much still win this election.”