Poll Freakout

Well, everybody in the progressive/Democratic side of the blogosphere and media is freaking out over all the polls that have swung massively for McCain in the last few days. These swings actually are significant, since the crosstabs in most of them really do reflect major changes.

But I really think everyone should really chill, and for two reasons:

  1. The assumption that people choose on likability/issues first and then determine the candidate they favor is backwards. That is, most people assume that now that McCain is getting more votes, it’s because people have changed their minds and now favor his position and like him better. But the way it really works is people choose the candidate first (for nebulous reasons, some having to do with issues, some with personality and optics) and then harmonize their answers on “favor on health care” and “favor on change” to match their top-of-the-ticket choice. In other words, these things are not independent at all. And the swing is just a matter of enthusiasm and lack of familiarity. People really want to like McCain and a choice like Palin (which is wearing awfully thin for me — if I see that smarmy, arrogant, self-satisfied “lipstick” sound bite one more time I think I’ll scream) just makes them want to like him more. For now, they are warm and rosy about him. But when we get to the debates, the rubber will meet the road and we’ll find out how completely different the two candidates really are in regard to where they want to take the country (I’ve no doubts about Obama’s ability to put across his policies and control the framing of McCain’s platform, despite all the hand-wringing about Obama not being so strong in debates).
  2. I much prefer my candidate being behind at this point in the race. It’s better to have to scrap and come from behind than it is to get self-satisfied and cautious. Obama is going to have to come out as a fighter, as someone who is passionate. Passion is what he’s lacked, and the polls are going to force him to make the commitment that will the win hearts and minds of those who still have doubts about him.

So, I’m not so very worried. There’s plenty of time for Palin to self-destruct. There’s plenty of time for it to become obvious how unserious the Republicans are in their campaign, with their constant spouting of lies betraying their basic contempt for the American electorate. As long as Obama’s surrogates keep hammering home the message that McCain really cannot possibly be an agent of change (or, of any kind of change that people would want), and keep harping on the fact that it’s Republicans who have screwed everything up, then I think things will turn out OK.

If they don’t, I think it will be the fault of the traditional media for simply not doing their job and pointing out what an awful candidate McCain and Palin are in terms of their lack of interest in truthfulness. I sure wish they’d give them the Al Gore treatment, except this time it would be well-deserved.

Last of all, we have to keep in mind the principle that drives Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com, i.e., that the polls whose questions run “If the election were held today…” are simply false. The election is not today, and what people say about their choice now (when forced to choose) does not necessarily determine to any large degree what choice they will make in November. In other words, we just don’t know what will happen because the polls actually don’t mean what they are always presented to mean. And, besides, the top-line national polls simply don’t mean a damned thing, given that the popular vote doesn’t determine the winner. The Electoral College math has tightened, yes, but it’s still Obama’s game to lose.

All in all, we simply don’t know enough to panic yet. And I still feel more comfortable with Obama tied or behind at this point.