Two new polls showing a Mitt Romney lead have shaken up prominent liberal bloggers.
Liberal super-blogger Andrew Sullivan took to the Daily Beast on Monday in full meltdown mode, with the headline, "Did Obama just throw the entire election away?"
More measured in tone was Markos Moulitsas at the Daily Kos, who actually commissioned the PPP poll that showed Romney leading by 2 points on Tuesday.
Kos wrote that the poll showed "that Obama's debate performance was an epic blunder. Romney gave his partisans a reason to get excited about him and they've responded. It should come as no surprise that people like to fight for people who are fighting for them."
"The Pew poll is devastating, just devastating," Sullivan wrote. "Before the debate, Obama had a 51-43 lead; now, Romney has a 49-45 lead. That's a simply unprecedented reversal for a candidate in October. Before, Obama had leads on every policy issue and personal characteristic; now Romney leads in almost all of them. Obama's performance gave Romney a 12 point swing! I repeat: a 12 point swing."
Sullivan probably needs to take several deep breaths, walk around the block, and sip a little of the skeptism that Republicans have been using all summer and fall.
Or, as conservative pundit John Podhoretz put it on Tuesday, the polls are "garbage," noting that only 9 percent of respondents talk to pollsters now and no one has any idea how to account for cell phones.
"All we can be sure of," Podhoretz wrote, "in the words of the peerless Internet humorist Iowahawk, 'political poll results accurately reflect the opinions of the weirdo 9 percent who agree to participate in political polls.'"
"What yesterday proved is that all bets are off. We’re judging the state of this contest with junk data, and we need to stop. Until pollsters can figure out how to avoid all these crazy mood swings and white noise, they should be put on political and pundit probation."
What is left for the political junkie?
For months now, Republicans have discounted Obama's large leads in many polls by asking a simple question: will exit polls actually show that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 6, 7 or more percentage points?
The same question now applies in reverse to the Pew poll.
Before adjusting for likely voters, the Pew registered voters sample was 36 percent Republicans, 33 percent Democrats and 30 percent independents. That's an R+3, which most observers believe is a very unlikely outcome. And that's before the likely voter filter, which would goose the R column even further.
Is the Pew skew real, or is it a random variation? Will Republicans, who in the best years usually hope to break even in exit polls, actually measurably outnumber Democrats in this election?
The PPP poll is less easily dismissed, as it actually had a D+3 sample.
How does a D+3 show roughly the same results as an R+5? First, the PPP poll shows Obama retaining a much lower percentage of his own party vote. Pew shows Obama retaining 94 percent of Democrats, while PPP shows him holding only 87 percent.
Party loyalty, in addition to turnout, is a very significant variable and bears watching.
PPP also showed Romney with a 6 point lead among independents, compared to a 4 point lead in Pew.
How does one account for the wild swings in party ID shown in the Pew poll?
One theory holds that party ID is fluid and will spike and fall based on events and public perceptions. This is the school that all along has argued that polls "skewed" toward Democrats are defensible snapshots of the public pulse.
Among these is Jon Cohen at the Washington Post, who sees the field as fluid and is willing to credit a large shift in party identification due to the debate performance.
"The recent hullabaloo about adjusting samples (or, in the parlance of pollsters “weighting”) to pre-determined partisan splits," Cohen wrote, "misses that movements in party identification can be just as real as movements in voting intentions."
"These polls show more people are now identifying as Republicans in the wake of Romney’s debate performance. Just as they showed a clear Democratic tilt earlier in the fall, and in the immediate aftermath of Romney’s “47 percent” comments. Shifts happen in the electorate. The only constant is change," Cohen wrote.
Nate Silver at the New York Times agrees with Cohen, but does question the size of the Pew skew.
"It is probably also the case that Republicans won’t actually have a 5-point party identification advantage in the exit poll on Election Day," Silver wrote. "But it isn’t the pollster’s job to project what will happen on Nov. 6. (That’s my job, instead!) Rather, the pollster’s job is to take the most accurate snapshot of the electorate at the time the poll is conducted. Note that the Rasmussen Reports polls, which (improperly, in my view) adjust for party identification, show very little bounce for Mr. Romney. The party-identification adjustment is causing them to miss the story of the election — just as they were largely missing the story of Mr. Obama’s bounce following his convention."
But this is, of course, precisely the question: is the electorate this volatile, swinging wildly from day to day? Or can we predict within a fairly narrow range how many each party (including leaners) has in their corner, and then make some estimate about enthusiasm to predict actual turnout?
In fact, political scientists have long told us that voters are fairly predictable in their partisan voting patterns, even if they claim to be independent.
That is why some polls ask about typical voting patterns and then "squeeze" voters, reducing the number of independents. The Politico/GWU poll released Monday did this, finding only 16 percent independents.
That poll had a D+4 sample, which is roughly between recent highs and lows. But it also found Democrat enthusiasm down and GOP enthusiasm up, suggesting that the final turnout would slide closer toward even if nothing changed.
Assuming that both parties are equally successful in retaining their voters who do turn out, then the closer the partisan split grows toward even, the more the independent vote will be decisive, and most polls currently show Romney with a lead among independents.