The latest Gallup Daily Poll released Thursday shows President Barack Obama trailing Republican challenger Mitt Romney by a startling seven percentage points as the Nov. 6 Election Day creeps ever closer.
But whether the incumbent should panic or not is another matter entirely.
The latest Gallup result from likely voters nationwide was by far the most favorable to Romney among national polls released over the past week. Nine other organizations using a wide variety of different methodologies showed results ranging from a four percentage point lead for Romney to a three-point advantage for Obama.
The HuffPost Pollster tracking model, which combines all of these public polls as well as state level surveys into a national popular vote estimate, continues to show Obama and Romney in a virtual tie.
Many experts tend to agree that a poll is usually off whenever it is so vastly different from others taken at the same period.
But why is that, given Gallup’s tradition and name-brand recognition?
The most likely answer is the voter model that has helped produce large and seemingly inexplicable shifts and differences with other polls in the past.
In 2000, for example, Gallup’s daily tracking survey showed Republican nominee George W. Bush going from a nine-point deficit against Democrat Al Gore to an eight-point lead in just three days following the first presidential debate. Other polls done at the same time also showed movement to Bush, but the average overall shift in the margin separating Bush and Gore was roughly two percentage points, not 17.
Over the past 10 days since Gallup started reporting its tracking results among likely voters, the results have typically shown a reasonably constant gap — roughly five percentage points — between the likely and registered voter samples. On Thursday, Gallup gave Romney a one-point edge (48 to 47 percent) among registered voters. That statistic should alarm the Obama campaign to more extent because he’s coming off a debate in which he’s widely considered to have won and also because Democrats tend to more often be no-shows on Election Day.
The Obama campaign is obviously concerned about the race’s recent change in trajectory and has obviously begun scaling back its electoral map ambitions. A month ago, the campaign was toying with the idea of allocating resources to Arizona, a traditionally Republican state where demographics are becoming more favorable for Democrats. But by Wednesday, they were just worried about the usual swing states of New Hampshire, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. The campaign is sending Jill Biden to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa this weekend. The president hasn’t been to North Carolina since the Democratic convention. Obama’s lead in the key swing state of Ohio has shrunk to an average of 2.4 points.
But there’s also ample reason to be skeptical of the Gallup results. It’s obvious that Romney’s lead probably isn’t as big nationally as Gallup would have us believe. If it were, it stands to reason that he’d be more competitive in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Ultimately, solving the mystery of Gallup’s currently divergent result is difficult, particularly since it does not routinely disclose the demographic or attitudinal composition of its likely or registered voter samples.
Gallup’s results are very different, at least for now, compared to most of the national polls, just as they were in 2010. The best advice may be what political scientist and blogger Jonathan Bernstein offered his readers.
As “with every polling number,” he wrote, “ignore it, and look at the polling averages.”