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2012 Election: Lies, Damned Lies, and Polls

The latest Obama and Romney surveys are playing with our heads — but what do they actually mean?


From now until November, we will be treated to a daily diet of public opinion polls. Who’s up, who’s down, and what it all means will be our bread and butter for the next six months.

I may choke.

At an elegant dinner party on the far outskirts of Boston a few days ago, there was much gloom and doom over Obama’s chances for re-election. While all present were self-proclaimed “Obamaistas,” the assembled glitterati had little faith in their chosen candidate.

“I really think he is going to lose,” sighed Elizabeth, a wealthy matron whose son-in-law is a Wall Street dynamo who is donating significant funds to Obama. “I hope I’m wrong, but according to the polls ….”

Stop right there.

I have spent quite a bit of time poring over the latest surveys, and I am more confused than ever. According to Fox News — never one to go overboard on praising this president — Barack Obama is up by seven points over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Fox also has Obama’s job approval at +2 — meaning 49 percent approve, 47 percent disapprove, for a two-point positive spread.

Just one day before, Gallup had the president’s job approval at -2, and Rasmussen had him down by one point against Romney. Gallup also showed the pair tied in the general election.

Most of the results are within the “margin of error,” which seems to be about 90 percent, although the pollsters claim it is +/- 2.

But before we all either pop the champagne or down some Drano, depending on our political persuasion, it would behoove us to reflect on the nature of American politics, particularly the presidential variety.

Another guest at the recent dining event is a political science professor at Boston University. He belongs to the group I am calling the DisLibs, the disappointed liberals who supported Obama heart and soul four years ago, but have seen their astronomical hopes and sky-high expectations dashed against the stones of harsh reality.

“How can anyone vote for Obama?” he grumbled. “The only thing worse would be voting for Romney.”

This DisLib was going Third Party.

“Luckily, I live in one of the 40 states where my vote does not matter,” he said bitterly.

Really? How is that? As Americans, we embrace the “one man, one vote” concept with all the fervor of religious converts (I am consciously tamping down my feminist hackles here).

But direct elections — where every vote counts — are just not the American way when it comes to the head of state.

My professor friend is a Massachusetts resident. This state has voted for just two Republican candidates in nearly 90 years — Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1988, and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. In 1972, the Bay State was the only populace to reject Richard Nixon — the electoral map for that year is a sea of red with just one blue holdout.

Those alive at the time remember the Watergate bumper stickers: “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts,” our smug response to the disgrace and eventual impeachment of the president.

Massachusetts went overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008, giving him 62 percent of the vote; most experts list it as a “Safe Obama” state for November.

Of course, it could all change. And the world could end in December. But it isn’t very likely.

So pity the poor conservatives living in Massachusetts. Their voice will not be heard. The same, of course, is true for liberals in, say, Tennessee or Mississippi.

In all, there are really just 10 “swing” states — those that are still in play. If you are wondering why there has been so much reporting out of Ohio, Florida, or North Carolina, it is because these are the states that will most likely decide who will be the next president.

But how did we ever end up this way? The president is elected, as we all know, not by the voters but by the Electoral College, established by the 12th Amendment of the Constitution in 1804. The move was a compromise between those who wanted a direct election, and those who feared a popular vote and preferred Congress to choose the president.

As a result, we have a system where a candidate could actually win the popular vote, but lose the election. This has, indeed, happened, three times to be exact. The most recent was in 2000, when Al Gore had more than half a million votes over his rival, George Bush. It all came down to Florida, and some nonsense over “pregnant chads,” but perhaps that is all best forgotten.

So all of the general polls come down to nothing — or very little, at least. Instead, we have “electoral math,” CNN’s “magic board,” or, when all else fails, reading tea leaves or chicken entrails.

My DisLib dinner partner may stay home on Nov. 6. He may write in Ron Paul, Ralph Nader or Bozo the Clown. The results will be about the same.

I am swearing off the polls for now. Instead, I think I’ll just go cut up a chicken.