Do Great Leaders Look at the Polls?
The myth that leadership is some mystical quality that rises above the ebb and flow of short-term popular interactions is not something that most people who have lived around politics believe to be true. The late pollster, Bob Teeter, who was my teacher on these topics, believed that there was a special need to get the polls right and when they were surprising. to spend time helping the candidate’s family understand what had happened.
He referred to the “candidate’s wife” problem. To be surprised by an outcome on election night was worse than any other time. And understanding the end game was always one of the most insightful times.
(As a practical matter, today the professional pollsters can cushion the risk by aligning their final analysis with scenarios of likely voters and election day exit polls. So it’s harder now to miss by a mile.)
The point is equally important on the front end. To understand what happens on election night there’s also a need to go further back and to begin with an accurate baseline at the starting point. There is a point in virtually every election, even the blow out elections, when the voters essentially start the major candidates at parity. This was especially true in 1984 (Reagan – Mondale) when in spite of what later appeared to be an overwhelming base of popular support, there was a time in June 1984 when the two were almost equal. The shift can come quickly and decisively so that it appears that there was always a significant difference. But this masks the real baseline that can be seen at the starting gate.
What’s more as Bush v. Gore demonstrated, the Presidential races are not popular vote contests, they’re decided in the Electoral College (or the Supreme Court and the Electoral College.) Today red states and blue states are so polarized that elections are likely to be decided by a handful of swing states. So the starting gate is really the positioning of the two candidates in 10-12 specific plaes.
For Obama and Romney the election is likely to be decided in a dozen swing states. (There is never complete agreement on what these states are. Sometimes Wisconsin and Michigan are seen more as Democratic than swing.) As Romney gets the nomination Obama has nearly a 4 point lead in the Real Clear Politics poll average. But the interesting thing about the swing states is to see where they are and where they have been.
In 2011 Time Magazine published the following summary of the swing states and their approval ratings. What is clear is that while Obama may be leading nationally, his support has been soft in the key states.
This table shows the Gallop approval ratings and the way that they slipped in key states.
The table suggests softness in the Obama lead even if there no clear moment of parity yet.
The game is afoot. The moment of parity will come soon and then what may be the most the most import definitional moments of the election. Without watching the polls it may not be easy to recognize this inflection point.
So there may be leaders who do not pay attention to the polls, but they should.