October 19, 2008

Why Is Obama Falling Slightly in Polls?

After the American Century

Just a month ago, on September 19, McCain and Obama were tied in the polls. Then as the economic crisis rolled over America, Obama rose in the polls. He also won all three debates. Nevertheless, after rising to more than a 7 point advantage in an average of the polls, in the last few days he has begun to fall again, and now has an overall advantage of 4.9%, which is is 3.3% lower than it was on October 14. In other words, the average of all the polls shows a clear downward line for the last five days, for reasons that are not readily apparent.

Looking back over the campaign, one can see a yo-yo pattern. McCain led Obama in late March, then lost ground, briefly pulled ahead of Obama in the middle of April, then lost ground again, was tied with him on May 2, then lost ground, pulled within 0.7% of Obama on June 1, and then lost ground. McCain also drew within 1.2% of Obama on August 20 fell behind due to the "convention bounce" for the Democrats, but then had an even bigger favorable bounce himself. Then for ten days, from September 7 to 17, McCain was ahead.

This see-saw ride does not seem to be over. For months, the electorate has leaned toward Obama and then pulled back, over and over again. Just a few days ago it seemed obvious that McCain had all but lost the election, and indeed he took his staff out of both Wisconsin and Maine recently, pulling back to defend his slumping popularity in North Carolina, Florida, and Missouri.

The puzzling pattern of Obama's waxing and waning national popularity may be unimportant, of course. But many volatile voters apparently keep changing their minds. This is especially interesting because of the so-called "Bradley effect," named after a Los Angeles mayor. An African-American, he ran far ahead in the polls, but narrowly lost It seemed that many whites were reluctant to say they would vote against a Black man, but in fact this is what they did in the privacy of the polling booth. That was in 1982. Will Obama also be hurt by the Bradley effect? Or is the US signigicantly less racist now? It does seem that at least in the Democratic primaries last spring the Bradley effect was not much in evidence.

A second possibility is that many Americans are beginning to worry about giving the Democrats too much power. It seems certain they will increase their control of both the House and the Senate. Add a landslide White House victory, and the Democrats could do whatever they wanted. US voters are inveterate ticket-splitters. They seem to like it when the power of the executive from one party is checked by a Congress controlled by the other party. Some swing voters may be swayed by that argument to vote for McCain.

Yet another possibility is that uncertain voters are swinging back and forth between Obama and third party candidates. The more certain Obama's victory (and McCain's defeat) seems, the easier it might be for independent-minded voters to pull the lever for Nader or Barr. Curiously, this is good news for the Democrats. The polls strongly suggest that Nader and Barr are taking more votes away from McCain than from Obama. When all four candidates are included in polls, McCain's total falls 3.4%, while Obama loses only 1%. In short, voter volatility may not express dissatisfaction with Obama, but unstable support for McCain.

In fifteen days we will know whether Obama has achieved the landslide some are now beginning to predict, or whether his decline in the polls the last five days is just a blip on the screen or part of a tightening of the race down to the wire.