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Accuracy Of Polls a Question In Itself

Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters during a rally at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. An array of polls yesterday showed the Democratic presidential nominee winning by as little as two points and as much as 15 points.
Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters during a rally at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. An array of polls yesterday showed the Democratic presidential nominee winning by as little as two points and as much as 15 points. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Could the polls be wrong?

Sen. John McCain and his allies say that they are. The country, they say, could be headed to a 2008 version of the famous 1948 upset election, with McCain in the role of Harry S. Truman and Sen. Barack Obama as Thomas E. Dewey, lulled into overconfidence by inaccurate polls.

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"We believe it is a very close race, and something that is frankly very winnable," Sarah Simmons, director of strategy for the McCain campaign, said yesterday.

Few analysts outside the McCain campaign appear to share this view. And pollsters this time around will not make the mistake that the Gallup organization made 60 years ago -- ending their polling more than a week before the election and missing a last-minute surge in support for Truman. Every day brings dozens of new state and national presidential polls, a trend that is expected to continue up to Election Day.

Still, there appears to be an undercurrent of worry among some polling professionals and academics. One reason is the wide variation in Obama leads: Just yesterday, an array of polls showed the Democrat leading by as little as two points and as much as 15 points. The latest Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll showed the race holding steady, with Obama enjoying a lead of 52 percent to 45 percent among likely voters.

Some in the McCain camp also argue that the polls showing the largest leads for Obama mistakenly assume that turnout among young voters and African Americans will be disproportionately high. The campaign is banking on a good turnout among GOP partisans, whom McCain officials say they are working hard to attract to the polls.

"I have been wondering for weeks" whether the polls are accurately gauging the state of the race, said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. Borrowing from lingo popularized by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Schier asked what are the "unknown unknowns" about polling this year: For instance, is the sizable cohort of people who don't respond to pollsters more Republican-leaning this year, perhaps because they don't want to admit to a pollster that they are not supporting the "voguish" Obama?

If so, that could mean the polls are routinely understating McCain's support. "I have no evidence that this is happening," Schier said, but he added: "I'm still thinking there's a 25 percent chance that this is a squeaker race and McCain pulls it out."

Other experts are less uncertain. Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer at the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation, said averaging the daily polls points to "pretty much the same thing -- that the race is pretty stable and that Obama has a stable lead. Typically, when you are this far ahead at this point, it's hard to lose."

"It is very unlikely that we are going to get surprised by a last-minute movement," said John R. Petrocik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri. "Obama has been running six to eight points ahead for the better part of two weeks, and it's hard to imagine that turning around."

The McCain campaign's case that the race is closer than many polls suggest appears to rest largely on the proposition that the composition of the electorate this year will closely resemble that in 2004.

McCain pollsters do anticipate that turnout could be even higher this year than the robust turnout four years ago, but they also expect that Democratic gains among African American voters and younger voters will be offset by higher turnout among more Republican-leaning voters. They also assert the race is tightening in battleground states, with independent voters increasingly receptive to McCain.


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