Is McCain catching up? Maybe.

by JS O’Brien

Conventional wisdom in presidential elections is that they almost always tighten near the end.  Today’s Rasmussen Reports tracking poll, which shows Obama’s lead shrinking to +3, 50% to 47%, not only reflects a tightening, but may reflect deeper trouble for Obama, as well.

Or maybe not.

The Rasmussen Reports poll has been the steadiest of all the polls during this election, primarily because of its methodology.  Unlike most polls, Rasmussen’s is automated, meaning that the questionnaire items are always delivered in exactly the same way.  In addition, Rasmussen’s sample size is larger than most, reducing its margin of error, and this large sampling allows its weighting by Republican vs. Democratic responses to be more statistically meaningful.  Since my last post on the polls, Rasmussen has shown very little movement from the +5 to +7 or so for Obama that it’s been showing for over a month.  Other polls have been coming in with not-terribly-credible, outlying numbers (Obama +15 yesterday in a Pew poll and Obama +1 in an IBD/TIPP poll from last Thursday), but Rasmussen has been steady as a rock, and has tracked within a point or two of both the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average and the FiveThirtyEight trend line for at least a month.

This is why it’s so surprising that Rasmussen should move from +7 on Monday to +5 yesterday (a movement I attributed to normal margin-of-error fluctuation), to +3 today.  That’s four points in three days from what has been a rock-steady poll.

Is Rasmussen reflecting reality?  Well, there has been some movement toward McCain since last week.  Obama’s RCP average soared as high as +8 and was down to +6.3 yesterday (it’s down to +5.9 so far today, largely because of the Rasmussen results, so it will change during the day as new polls come in).  I think the +8 number was too high, but +7 certainly wasn’t, so it’s fair to say that McCain has picked up around a polling consensus point, or perhaps a bit more, from his low-water mark.  That would be normal tightening, but a move like the one Rasmussen is reporting — four points in two days — would be something else, entirely, especially since tracking polls reflect multi-day, rolling results, indicating that Rasmussen’s recent results show an even stronger-than-reflected trend for McCain.

Adding further to the confusion is that polls on the presidential race at the state level aren’t showing this sort of trend, at all.  I checked the dates on the most recent state polls to see if they could be lagging the data from the tracking polls and found that, if they are, it’s not by more than a day on average.  I don’t notice any strong movement toward McCain in the battleground states, but perhaps today’s new state polls will demonstrate some of that.

We’ll see.

So, what have we got?  No one knows.  Statistical noise?  A strong movement toward McCain in states so red or blue that no one is bothering to track them anymore?  A real movement toward McCain nationwide that will soon be reflected in the vital battleground states?

Stay tuned.  As polling results accumulate today, we should get a clearer picture of what’s really going on.

8 comments on “Is McCain catching up? Maybe.

  1. …on a separate note that is the best graphic in an S & R post in the longest of times.

    The polls still worry me. It ain’t over until its over.

  2. Assuming the moves in Rasmussen are legit and not statistical noise, it makes one wonder what happened in the past four days to cause it. I mean, did anything meaningful happen in the past couple of days that could be a, to use an overplayed word, game-changer?

    You had Biden’s “joke” interview (lots of air time on the Internet), you had the story about Palin’s $150,000 make-over (probably beating a dead horse), you had Ted Stevens’s conviction on corruption charges (too recent to make a lasting impression)…I mean, what else is there? Don’t tell me Joe the Plumber’s endorsement of McCain has anything to do with it.

    What would really bother me is if this change in the polls is from the McCain campaign’s appropriation of the term “socialist” to Obama’s tax policies. It reflects on the intelligence of the American public (Mencken’s axiom observed, never to be underestimated) if they can’t distinguish progressive taxation, a tradition in Western civilization going back to Adam Smith, from real socialism, and it would be reinforcement to politicos who think “swiftboating” and Rovian politics are viable strategies.

    Is it so much to ask for a little truth in my political discourse?

  3. I blame the following:

    People are SICK of robo-calls and heartfelt volunteers. We’re getting 6 calls a night. So if I picked up, realized it was a computer, I would be hanging up again right away. I wouldn’t stay on the line long enough to realize it IS a poll. We’ve already voted, we want our peace and quite back, please.

    Someone who hasn’t voted yet, or is pulling for their underdog, might be more willing to stay on the phone.

    Lara Amber

  4. Lara: Interestingly, I live in an important battleground state and have received no robo calls, no get out the vote calls, or anything else for that matter. Which is rather odd, when you think about it.

    Steve: Obama’s support in the Rasmussen poll has hovered between 50% and 52% (within the margin of error) for many weeks, and this Ramussen poll also has him at 50%. So, if anything has changed (and, as you say, it’s not noise), then it probably means that McCain is picking up a lot of undecideds, and that may very well come from a repeated and steady message of “socialist.”

    But, as I said, this isn’t showing up in the state polls, and later polls today aren’t showing a lot of change, with the RCP average back up to 6.

    So, go figure.

  5. Maybe gas prices are starting to play a part. In August, gas was up around $4.00 a gallon here in Austin. This morning, I bought gas for $2.13. These days, the stock market has a wild up day almost as often as it has a wild down day. Perhaps people are beginning to think that the economic downturn isn’t as drastic as politicians and the media would have them believe.

  6. I , along with apparently millions of African Americans, am terrified that the republicans have a plan to steal the election. This would be less scary if they hadn’t already done it in the past one or two elections, while gore and kerry just let them. I on’t see the people just letting it happen. I am 58 and remember the riots in the streets. It the elcetion gets stolen, and I saw a story on how easy it is to make a machine cheat, I will be out there in the streets myself– heaading towand any socialized medical country.

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