About that Gallup poll: Is Romney really up by 7? And will Obama win the election anyway?

October 19, 2012

According to Real Clear Politics, Mitt Romney is, on average, up by one point in the polls. According to both Nate Silver and InTrade, President Obama has a better-than-60-percent chance of winning the election. I think it's fair to say that the election is, for the moment, close.

But not according to Gallup. Their seven-day tracking poll shows Romney up by seven points — yes, seven — with likely voters. But he's only up by one point with registered voters.

It gets weirder: Dig into the poll, and you'll find that in the most recent internals they've put on their Web site  — which track from 10/9-10/15  — Obama is winning the West (+6), the East (+4), and the Midwest (+4). The only region he's losing is the South. But he's losing the South, among likely voters, by 22 points. That's enough, in Gallup's poll, for him to be behind in the national vote. But it's hard to see how that puts him behind in the electoral college.

If Gallup is right, then that looks to me like we're headed for an electoral college/popular vote split. Last night, I spoke with Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, to ask him if I was missing something. He said I wasn't. "That's certainly what it looks like," he says.

But Newport was cautious in interpreting his numbers. Gallup's poll cheered Romney supporters because it showed Romney gaining ground even after the second debate. But Newport didn't see it like that. Remember, he warned, it's a seven-day poll. "I think we're still seeing leftover positive support for Romney and I don't think we're seeing impact yet from the second debate," he says. 

What you think is going on in the race depends on whether you think the electorate will ultimately look more like Gallup's "likely voter" model, where the race is a blowout, or all registered voters, where it's a dead heat. So I asked Newport to explain the likely voter model to me. 

"The likely voters model takes into account changes in the response to questions about how closely they're following and how enthusiastic they are," he said. "It's not just capturing underlying movement  — it's representing changes in enthusiasm."

That sounds, I replied, like a model that would tend to overstate the effects of major events that favored one candidate or the other, as their supporters would grow temporarily more enthusiastic and attentive, while the other side would grow temporarily disillusioned. Newport agreed. "I wouldn't use the word 'overstate,' " he said. "But it would be very sensitive to changes in enthusiasm. The Denver debate clearly had an impact on Romney's people. I think your insight is correct there. Whether we see a dulling of that over the next several days is what I want to see." 

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Ezra Klein | October 19, 2012