The most recent Pew survey, which shows Mitt Romney reversing an eight-point deficit and claiming a four-point lead, is being hailed as potentially the best poll Romney has seen since the beginning of the general-election campaign. (The prior Pew poll showing Obama up by eight was one of Obama’s best polls of the campaign.) Republicans have been quick to tout the poll as evidence of the changing political landscape following Romney’s resounding debate victory last week.
The problem with Pew is that its polls tend to be all over the place. In 2008, Pew’s final four polls had Obama leading by margins of 7, 14, 15, and 6. Quite a difference, and with each new poll comes a new narrative — Obama has a solid lead, Obama doubles lead, Obama maintains double-digit lead, McCain closing hard as over half of Obama’s lead vanishes. Pew explains most of the change by pointing to its likely voter screen, which Pew argues tends to favor Republicans as the election draws closer.
Indeed, the most recent Pew poll predicts a far different — and more Republican — electorate than its previous poll did. In its September poll, Pew predicted that the electorate would be D+10. In its latest poll, Pew predicts that the electorate will be R+5 — a 15-point swing. No other pollster has predicted such a right-leaning electorate this year. A Republican turnout advantage of this size in a presidential election would be historic.
Pew also records information on the number of Obama 2008 and McCain 2008 voters in its polls. That, too, is revealing. In Pew’s September poll, Obama 2008 voters outnumbered McCain 2008 voters 47-32. In Pew’s latest poll, Obama 2008 voters outnumbered McCain 2008 voters by just 42-37 — a 10-point swing.
In other words, Pew surveyed one electorate in the middle of September and a completely different electorate in the beginning of October.
The danger of Republicans using the latest Pew poll as the foundation for a “Romney is winning” mantra is that Pew’s next sample will likely lean more Democratic, in which case Obama’s standing will improve and the headlines will read “Romney faltering.”
If Romney really is up by four points, other polls will soon join Pew in locking in that number. For the time being, Republicans shouldn’t celebrate the Pew poll. Doing so will only insulate the pollster from negative feedback following the next poll, when it may have President Obama back up by four.
Brandon J. Gaylord, the editor-in-chief of HorseRacePolitics.com, is a graduate of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. Brandon got his start in politics as an intern in Vice President Richard Cheney’s Office of Political Affairs. You can contact Brandon at firstname.lastname@example.org.