Panicking over Polls? Don't.

Like many, I’ve been shocked to watch the polls move around during the last couple weeks.

And what I find so shocking is that Barack Obama, despite enjoying every possible advantage a candidate for the presidency could wish for in even in his wildest dreams, is not currently 10 or 15 points ahead of John McCain. A massive economic meltdown, hurricanes that supposedly remind voters of Katrina, an historically unpopular Republican president, an unpopular war, a media which is willing to positively distort Obama’s record and accomplishments while launching unprecedented smears against McCain. What more could Barack Obama need to close the deal.

Let’s get a few things out of the way.

  • The polls are not suddenly veering wildly and decisively toward Obama. Rather, they are, according to the Real Clear Politics average, approximately back to where they before the conventions. The “political middle,” where there are still large numbers of undecideds, is swaying like a reed in the wind. A five percent change is actually very small, and entirely reversible.

  • Consider what a five percent change actually represents. If only 2.5 voters out of 100 change their minds about who they’re voting for, that results in a 5% switch in the favor of one candidate. That represents a mere one person out of forty changing their minds. This IS not a groundswell.

  • According to Rasmussen, a full 20% of LIKELY voters HAVE STILL NOT MADE UP THEIR MINDS. This is a startling fact of major importance. If they have not decided to go for Obama yet, considering everything that’s happened in the last weeks and Obama’s enormous built-in advantages, why not? They haven’t decided to go for McCain either, but even if the election were held today, who do you suppose people capable of harboring such doubts are more likely to vote for? The known quantity or the unknown quantity? Clearly these are voters who are largely immune to the twin mirages of undefined “hope” or “change”–or else they’d be in the Obama camp already. We can’t predict who they will end up going for, but the fact is that they exist and it will be THEM who end up deciding this extremely fluid and largely unpredictable election.

  • The loss of McCain’s “convention bounce” was entirely predictable and should not be regarded as alarming. I attribute the initial surge largely to exuberance over Sarah Palin, who functioned for a time in the imaginations of voters much as Barack Obama has done–as a vessel onto which voters projected their own hopeful fantasies. This is not a criticism of Governor Palin. It’s merely to observe that a candidate cannot actually be all things to all people, and that any level of scrutiny (fair or unfair) directed towards flesh and blood human beings will bring them back to earth. This is something that Palin and Obama are both more prone to in this campaign than McCain or Biden, since those two are largely known quantities that voters already had the chance to form strong impressions of before the advent of the campaign. Palin’s main usefulness to this point has been to solidify the base, something that nobody should sneeze at considering McCain’s pre-existing troubles with conservatives.

  • It is unlikely that the economic news of the last several days will dominate every news cycle a month from now to the extent that it is now. And to the extent that it does, McCain–no matter what shape the current deal being hammered out takes, and no matter how the media attempts to diminish or criticize that involvement–can no longer be accused of not taking an active interest in economic matters.

This is all just to say that any sense of gloom and doom based on current polls is entirely unwarranted. The race remains extremely fluid. There remains an extremely large trove of undecided voters, and the race remains what it has been for some time now: up in the air.

And now the debates.