For the last week or so, we have been hoping to decode a confusing polling landscape. President Obama still appeared to hold a narrow Electoral College lead on the basis of state-by-state surveys, while national polls were suggestive of a tie or perhaps the slightest edge for Mitt Romney.
If the current polls hold, predicting the election outcome will boil down to making a series of educated guesses about the relationship between state and national polls, and between the Electoral College and the popular vote.
There have been plenty of elections before when the outcome was highly uncertain down the stretch run or on Election Day itself. But I am not sure that there has been one where different types of polls pointed in opposite directions. Anyone in my business who is not a bit terrified by this set of facts is either lying to himself — or he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
There are three ways out of the stalemate. First, the state polls could move toward Mr. Romney. Second, the national polls could move toward Mr. Obama. Or third, we could receive more emphatic evidence that the difference between state polls and national polls in fact reflects a potential difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College. (This latter case, importantly, would require evidence that Mr. Romney was running well in noncompetitive states along with evidence that Mr. Obama was performing well in swing states.)
On Friday, Mr. Romney appeared to be on the verge of resolving the dilemma in his favor after he held leads in a series of swing state polls. Mr. Romney’s chances of winning the Electoral College jumped to 38.9 percent from 33.9 percent on Friday, the largest single-day shift toward either candidate this year.
Mr. Romney’s momentum was less apparent in polling conducted over the weekend, however.
An Ohio poll by the firm Public Policy Polling put Mr. Obama 5 percentage points ahead in that state. A New Mexico poll for the Albuquerque Journal had Mr. Obama 10 percentage points ahead there. And a Gravis Marketing survey of Colorado had Mr. Obama with a lead of slightly over 2 percentage points in that state.
What is interesting about these polls is not just that they show leads for Mr. Obama, but that they were similar to (or in some cases, slightly improved from) the numbers that the same firms had published for Mr. Obama in advance of the Denver presidential debate, when he had a clear overall lead in the polls.
There are also some critiques that one can render about these polls. Gravis Marketing surveys, for instance, rely on cheap automated interviews. While they are usually more Republican-leaning than the consensus, they also seem to wander about randomly with little rhyme or reason. The Albuquerque Journal poll had a good track record, but it had been something of an outlier before, when it gave Mr. Obama a 5 percentage point lead in New Mexico in September, so his improvement there may simply reflect reversion to the mean.
Mr. Obama got one poor state poll over the weekend: a Public Policy Polling survey put him at a 1 percentage point deficit to Mr. Romney in Florida, reversing a prior 4-point advantage for Mr. Obama.
On the whole, however, these polls seemed more to reinforce the state-national poll stalemate than to resolve it. Mr. Obama made only a modest gain in the forecast over the weekend, to a 63.3 percent chance of winning the Electoral College as of Sunday’s update from 61.1 percent on Friday, clawing back less than half of the improvement that Mr. Romney had realized on Friday alone.
The forecast does not yet account, however, for a national poll conducted for The Washington Post and ABC News, which was released early on Monday morning. That poll gave Mr. Obama a lead of 3 percentage points in the national race among likely voters, and a 7-point lead among registered voters, both figures tying for his largest of the year in that survey.
We will see what the rest of Monday’s polling data brings, but The Washington Post and ABC News poll has the potential to be influential on the forecast, in the same way that a Pew Research poll showing a sharp break to Mr. Romney was last week.
Both polling firms are highly rated by the forecast, and so can sway the model when they appear to show a potential break in the race. Had the The Washington Post and ABC News been included in Sunday’s forecast, Mr. Obama’s Electoral College chances would have been 66 percent rather than 63.2 percent.
The national tracking polls will also be important in confirming or denying the result from The Washington Post’s poll. It is no longer that difficult to find national polls that put Mr. Obama ahead. As of Sunday, he was up by 1 percentage point in the online tracking poll published by Ipsos, and by several points in another online survey, from the RAND Corporation, which has never had him behind but has shown him expanding his advantage in recent days. Mr. Obama also led, but by less than a full percentage point, in a poll for Investors’ Business Daily.
Mr. Romney, however, still held leads in two other tracking polls. The Sunday edition of the Rasmussen Reports tracking poll put him up 2 percentage points, a 1-point gain from Saturday, while he maintained a 2-point lead in the Gallup national tracking poll of likely voters.
You should be able to see from this why The Washington Post’s poll is potentially important. With it, the case is clearer that Mr. Obama has recovered from his post-debate lows, although he has almost assuredly not made up all the ground he lost.
Of course, the candidates will also be able to take matters into their own hands in Tuesday’s debate in New York.
If Mr. Obama gains a net of 2 percentage points after the debate, then he should move ahead in the majority of national polls, and his swing state polls should show a clear advantage for him.
If Mr. Romney does instead, then not only would most national polls give him a lead, but so should some in states like Ohio and Iowa where he has struggled to break through.