The Big Five-Oh

A careful reading of recent presidential-election polls shows that the race is very close, and that if were held today, the result would likely mirror 2000's razor-close finish. If you had a different impression, that's certainly understandable, for nearly all media reporting on these same polls has suggested that George W. Bush enjoys a significant lead and will win comfortably barring a change in the race's dynamics. However, this media analysis is marred by a failure to take account of a phenomenon well-known to all political pollsters, the “incumbent 50-percent rule.”

Almost all poll reporting focuses on the “spread,” that is, the difference in the percentage supporting Bush and John Kerry. If we take an average of the most recent ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, and NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys, it shows Bush with 49 percent and Kerry with 44 percent among registered voters. Such survey results are invariably reduced to the shorthand “Bush up 5,” which sounds like a comfortable lead.

However, in incumbent elections, the incumbent's percentage of the vote is a far better indicator of the state of the race than the spread. In fact, the percentage of the vote an incumbent president receives in surveys is an extraordinarily accurate predictor of the percentage he will receive on election day -- even though the survey results also include a pool of undecided voters. Hence the 50-percent rule: An incumbent who fails to poll above 50 percent is in grave jeopardy of losing his job.

But is it really possible for Kerry to close a 5-point gap, absent some fundamental change in voter preference? To find historical precedent, we must reach back in history all the way to 1996, the most recent incumbent presidential election. Bill Clinton averaged 51 percent in the final polls but received 49 percent on election day, while Bob Dole averaged 37 percent but received 41 percent -- a net shift of 6 points. Not only can Kerry close such a gap, it is extremely likely that he will.

There have been four incumbent presidential elections in the past quarter-century. If we take an average of the final surveys conducted by the three major networks and their partners, we find that in three of these the incumbent fell short of or merely matched his final poll number, while exceeding it only once, and then by just a single point (Ronald Reagan). On average, the incumbent comes in half a point below his final poll result.

Year Incumbent Final Polls (in percent) Actual Vote (in percent)
1996 Bill Clinton 51 49
1992 George Bush Senior 37 37
1984 Ronald Reagan 58 59
1980 Jimmy Carter 42 41

The numbers for challengers look quite different. In every case, the challenger(s) -- I include Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 -- exceed their final poll result by at least 2 points, and the average gain is 4 points. In 1980, Ronald Reagan received 51 percent, fully 6 percentage points above his final poll results.

This happens because elections are fundamentally a referendum on the incumbent. The first step in voters' decision-making process is to answer the question “does he deserve re-election?” Undecided voters have basically answered that question in the negative, and their undecided status reflects the fact that they don't know enough about the challenger (yet) to feel comfortable stating a public preference.

Does this mean that literally all undecided voters cast their ballots for the challenger? Presumably not, though an overwhelming majority do. In addition, some who support the incumbent in pre-election polls are low-information voters basing their answer simply on name recognition, but who defect to the challenger at the last moment. In any case, the net effect is crystal clear: We can expect George W. Bush to receive about the same share of the vote -- or a bit less -- on November 2 as he receives in the final public polls.

Think of it this way: The percentage that Bush receives in polls represents his ceiling of support; he may get a little less, but won't get more. In contrast, Kerry's percentage represents his floor, and he will almost certainly do better on election day. Assuming that Ralph Nader and other minor candidates will receive about 2 percent -- which is what current surveys suggest -- 49 percent becomes the critical line of demarcation in this election. If Bush can get to 50 percent or above in the polls, he should be able to win. At 49 percent -- where he is today -- we're probably looking at another photo finish, lots of recounts, and narrow state-by-state victories dictating the Electoral College outcome. And below 49 percent, Bush is almost certain to lose.

You may also have heard that Bush is surging ahead in the crucial “battleground states” that will determine the Electoral College outcome. However, polls in these states actually reveal an even more precarious position for the president. Taken together, Bush receives a bit less support in these critical states than in the nation overall. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, Bush receives 49 percent support nationally but only 47 percent in the battleground states, a typical finding. (Bush and Al Gore split the vote in these states evenly, 48 percent to 48 percent.)

More importantly, if we take an average of recent published polls of registered voters in individual states, Bush falls short of the 49-percent benchmark in nearly every one, including Ohio (47 percent), Florida (47 percent), and Pennsylvania (46 percent). Wisconsin (51 percent) is the only crucial battleground state in which Bush appears to have a fairly solid lead. Bush even fails to clear the 49-percent bar in such 2000 Bush states as West Virginia (47 percent), Missouri (49 percent), and Arkansas (48 percent). This year, it is quite possible that it will be Bush who ends up wishing we had scrapped the Electoral College in favor of a straight popular vote.

How should political journalists deal with the misleading nature of poll spreads that appear to give Bush a significant lead? To be fair, they cannot report poll results in which Bush's percentage exceeds Kerry's by 5 or 6 points and simply call it a “tie.” Imagine the firestorm of protest that would erupt from conservative and GOP quarters, and with some merit. But political reporters can and should put these results in the proper historical context, informing viewers and readers that polls showing an incumbent president receiving 49 percent of the vote are consistent with a very close election result.

More fundamentally, polls drive the tone of media coverage of the race. When journalists believe one candidate has a substantial lead (in this case, Bush), campaign stories emphasize the popular appeal of that candidates' message and the brilliant strategic decisions of his advisers (and the opposite for the challenger). This coverage has a real-world impact, as supporters of the “leading” candidate get energized and partisans on the other side become demoralized, potentially affecting turnout. This is why Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd have been spinning Bush's strength in the polls so relentlessly. A fair reading of the polls by journalists would lead to more balanced coverage of the candidates and campaigns.

If political journalists interpret poll results in the correct context -- that of an incumbent president seeking re-election -- they will also become better analysts. If one understands that Bush is basically running even or slightly ahead of Kerry, the Bush team's acceptance of three debates makes sense -- he has as much to gain from debates as Kerry does. The idea that Bush feared negative publicity for agreeing to only two debates, which is the consensus media interpretation, is preposterous. An incumbent president with a solid lead can easily dictate fewer debates, as Clinton showed in 1996.

A correct reading of polls would also help prevent journalists from being suckered by strategic feints from the campaigns, such as the Bush team's proclaimed interest in “expanding the map” by pouring money into states such as New Jersey. Bush isn't anywhere close to showing enough strength in New Jersey to make the state truly competitive. If Karl Rove wants to repeat his 2000 California mistake by wasting resources this year on the other coast, Democrats will be happy indeed -- but it seems unlikely. Moreover, if Bush really had a solid lead, why are the Bush-Cheney campaign and its “527” allies continuing to devote virtually all of their resources to personal negative attacks against Kerry? That is simply not how incumbents in a strong position wage campaigns.

The alternative, continuing to focus on the spread, ensures press coverage that remains one step behind the real story. If and when Kerry succeeds in narrowing or eliminating the polling gap between him and Bush, the media will report a “dead heat” when, in fact, Kerry will be positioned for victory. For now, those of us watching from home can stay ahead of the press coverage by keeping our eye on the ball, ignoring the spread, and tracking Bush's percentage of the vote in the polls. We know -- just as the Bush campaign knows -- that this remains an extremely competitive election.

And there is one final factor to consider that isn't captured in the polls at all: the ground war. Democratic 527s such as America Coming Together are conducting massive voter-registration and mobilization campaigns that could easily add 2 or 3 percentage points to Kerry's vote. As the Service Employee International Union's Andy Stern has observed, this field operation is “the greatest field-goal unit in history” -- if Kerry can keep the race close, voter mobilization will give him the last few points he needs.

The polls tell us it may already be close enough.

Guy Molyneux is a partner and senior vice president with Peter D. Hart Research Associates, a Democratic polling firm.

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