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When the Horse Race (Kinda) Matters When the Horse Race (Kinda) Matters

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Columns / Gwen's Take

When the Horse Race (Kinda) Matters

photo of Gwen Ifill
September 21, 2012

In the past 12 days, there have been 82 published election polls. Eighty-two. National, state-by-state, and some partisan polls. And that’s just the presidential surveys. And we stopped counting on Thursday.

Taken together, they tell of a good week for President Obama. If politics is indeed all about the horse race, then the candidates are rounding the far curve and heading for the homestretch that will take them to Nov. 6.

(And, yes, I do hate sport metaphors, but this one proved difficult to resist.)


But it’s tough--and a bit arrogant--to call the election in mid-September, before a single debate has been held or vote cast. It’s far smarter to try to use this trove of survey information and figure out what it tells us about the American electorate.

These are the kinds of discussions we have in our Washington Week and PBS NewsHour planning meetings. We want to know what the numbers mean, not just what they are.

Fortunately, these surveys are rich in information about what is driving voters' decisions. That’s what I had in mind when we invited Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center and Mark Blumenthal of HuffPost Pollster to appear on the NewsHour this week.

Kohut reported that Obama is now running a full 8 points ahead of Mitt Romney among likely voters--a larger margin heading into the fall than any nominee since Bill Clinton.

And Blumenthal, who analyzes thousands of surveys and keeps a running chart updated on his site daily, gave the president an average lead of 4 percentage points and, significantly, a 51 percent approval rating.

But what do these polls tell us about the voters that explains why the horse race is where it is? Three things:

  • Voters are enthusiastic. So much for the idea that voters are so depressed and turned off by political negativity that they have stopped paying attention to the election. According to the Pew survey, 70 percent are giving a lot of thought to the election. More are reading political news, and nearly 80 percent say it matters who wins.
  • Voters are somewhat optimistic. How can that be? More than 60 percent of Americans say that the economy is in poor shape, and a compilation of a number of polls shows that half of voters disapprove of how the president is handling things.

    But go figure: nearly half--48 percent--say they expect things to get better next year, according to an AP-Gfk survey.
  • Voters are looking to pick a leader. Asked who they trust to handle a crisis (remember the 3 a.m. phone call ad that Hillary Rodham Clinton used against then-Sen. Obama in 2008?), the president comes out ahead of Romney in the Pew poll, 51 percent to 37 percent. Aside from the fact that he enjoys an incumbent’s advantage, Obama is also ahead on questions of relatability and his ability to handle foreign policy. Yet a closer look reveals another conundrum: Fully half--49 percent--say they are disappointed in the president.

Taken together, these polls show an uncertain electorate, and uncertainty seems to benefit the incumbent unless the challenger can prove he would be able to do any better.

It’s all well and good to keep track of the head-to-head polls. Gallup tracks this every single day. There have been five polls published just this week measuring the Massachusetts Senate race between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren.

But watch what these uncertain voters are saying, too. Their attitudes will decide not only the election six weeks from now but also the nation’s direction for the next four years.

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