On the surface, Wednesday seemed to be a pretty good polling day for President Obama. The latest five state polls, including those in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, showed him ahead of Mitt Romney by a margin of at least six points.
But our presidential forecast was unmoved – literally. It gives Mr. Obama a 66.1 percent chance of being re-elected, exactly the same number as on Tuesday. Why no change?
The reason is pretty simple: the polls were broadly in line with the model’s previous expectations, which had Mr. Obama as a seven-point favorite in Wisconsin, for instance, and five points ahead in Pennsylvania.
There were also polls out in Maine and New Mexico, states that sometimes get talked up as battlegrounds, but really aren’t. The model already had Mr. Obama ahead by 14 points and by 12 points in those states.
Mr. Obama should be pleased with Wednesday’s polls in one sense. The polls no more than match the model’s expectations. But the model has Mr. Obama a little bit ahead in the national race, putting him up by around two points in the popular vote over Mr. Romney and projecting him to 294 electoral votes to Mr. Romney’s 244.
In other words, Wednesday’s polling was consistent with the hypothesis that Mr. Obama has a small lead in the race. That contrasts with national, but not necessarily state, polls on Tuesday that seemed to show more of a straight-up tie.
Frankly, very little has changed so far in our assessment of the presidential race. In the month that we’ve been publishing model updates, the projected Nov. 6 result has pretty much always featured about a two-point lead for Mr. Obama. Sometimes that lead has moved a little closer to three points, and sometimes a little closer to one point, but it’s remained in a very tight range.
We do sometimes like to narrate even these small changes. I hope that we’re able to do this while keeping everything in its proper context. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a baseball game, even though you know it’s part of a 162-game season.
But the big picture of relative stability in the race should be kept in mind as well, especially if you’re used to seeing coverage in other news outlets that touts everything as a “game-changer.”
There are certainly little bits of good news or bad news for the candidates on any given day, but often they wind up being canceled out. Mr. Romney might have a good set of national polls one day, for instance, but a mediocre set of state polls the next. Mr. Obama gets a “win” on health care, then a rather poor jobs report. There’s some good economic news out of Europe, then some bad news about manufacturing activity here in the United States. Mr. Obama gets some good-looking polls in Virginia, but some bad ones in Michigan – and so on and so forth.
If you read the evidence selectively, it will be remarkably easy to find a favorable flow of news for your candidate at any given time. But usually you’ll be putting too much weight into the importance of some factors while ignoring others that contradict your story. There just hasn’t been much change in the race since Mr. Romney wrapped up the Republican nomination.
There is, of course, no guarantee that things will remain as stable straight through to Election Day. But there have been some cycles – most notably 2004, which this race resembles in some ways – in which we were seeing pretty much the same numbers for weeks or even months on end.
I’d like to wait at least a few more days before concluding that the latest news, like the jobs report and the health care ruling, will have little net effect on the race. The news over the past few weeks has been at least a little bit more substantive than at some points earlier in the year.
But this may be one of those cycles, like in 2004, when the public is pretty locked in to their choices. If so, the threshold for what news counts as “important” in the context of the presidential race, like things that we might expect to move the numbers by at least a full percentage point in one direction or another, is going to be very high.