Given that Dick Morris is almost always wrong in his predictions, it’s probably good news for Democrats that he is now jumping on the “the polls are lying, Romney is really winning” bandwagon. And he’s using an old argument that simply isn’t true:
Almost all of the published polls show Obama getting less than 50% of the vote and less than 50% job approval. A majority of the voters either support Romney or are undecided in almost every poll.
But the fact is that the undecided vote always goes against the incumbent. In 1980 (the last time an incumbent Democrat was beaten), for example, the Gallup Poll of October 27th had Carter ahead by 45-39. Their survey on November 2nd showed Reagan catching up and leading by three points. In the actual voting, the Republican won by nine. The undecided vote broke sharply — and unanimously — for the challenger.
An undecided voter has really decided not to back the incumbent. He just won’t focus on the race until later in the game.
So, when the published poll shows Obama ahead by, say, 48-45, he’s really probably losing by 52-48!
But this claim that undecided voters break for the challenger in large numbers, which has become a mantra for many, just isn’t supported by any evidence. Nate Silver, who has done more serious analysis of polls than anyone I know, debunks that claim:
It is often asserted that this is the case — that the polls move toward the “out-party” candidate rather than the incumbent. But in my view the empirical evidence — although it is somewhat ambiguous — mostly argues against this idea.
For a bit of background on this question, see my previous work on the “incumbent rule,” which is the notion espoused above that polls tend to break toward the challenging rather than incumbent candidate. My research into polls of gubernatorial, Senate and House races over the last 15 years or so suggests that this just is not true; in general, the incumbent candidate has been as likely to overperform his polling margin on Election Day as to underperform it.
And the same is true of presidential elections:
Finally, I have compared the poll averages against the actual outcome…
Perhaps more important, both candidates gain about the same amount of ground relative to the polls. On average since 1968, for instance, the incumbent-party candidate gained 3.5 points between the September polls and his actual performance on Election Day, while the challenger gained 3.9 points…
The evidence is not very convincing that polls break toward the challenger otherwise. (This seems to be true both for presidential elections and for other types of elections.)
In presidential years, the mean-reversion tendency in polls has been much clearer than any effects from incumbent status.
As with Dean Chambers, I think Dick Morris should make a wager with Nate Silver on which one is closest to predicting the actual outcome. I’d put big money on Silver myself.
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