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Wisconsin polling and Obama-Clinton electability

Here we go again with competing polls giving us significantly different snapshots of where things stand — in this case, heading into next Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary.

The very most recent poll — by Public Policy Polling (PDF), based on interviews completed Monday — shows Barack Obama with a commanding 50-41 percent lead over Hillary Rodham Clinton, with 10 percent undecided. The margin of error is +/- 3.9 percentage points. In the write-up, the polls director says their model shows that a big uptick in turnout among young and black voters is helping Obama.

On the Repub side, PPP shows John McCain leading Mike Huckabee by 53-32, with seven percent for Ron Paul.

The second most recent public poll, a three-day survey completed Sunday by the Republican-affiliated Strategic Vision, found Obama leading much more narrowly, 45-41, with 14 percent undecided and an error margin of 3.0 percentage points.

Strategic vision showed McCain 45, Huck 27, Paul 7 and 21 percent undecided.

The ‘What if?’ question
Much more interesting to me, Strategic Vision also asked respondents in the combined Dem and Repub sample whom they would vote for if the race came down to McCain vs. Clinton and if it came down to McCain-Obama.

Polls, as I constantly preach, are like crack cocaine for political junkies. I often wish there were fewer of them and that we paid less attention. (I’m a junkie, I can’t help it.)

But right now, at this big potential tipping-point moment in the Dem contest, the electability issue is front and center for many swing Democrats — including, I would think, many superdelegates. National trial heats have generally shown Obama running a bit better against McCain than Clinton does.

But, as anyone reading this surely knows, presidential elections are not won by the national popular vote. They are won state by state, on a winner-take-all electoral vote basis (except in Maine and Nebraska, which allow a split electoral vote). And they are won or lost in the close swing states.

It’s too soon to know which those states will be in 2008. But, in 2004, Wisconsin was the single closest of the 51 contests (I’m adding the District of Columbia in there). Kerry beat Bush there by 0.38%. Wisconsin has 10 electoral votes.

OK, enough drum roll: Strategic vision found that if Clinton were the nominee, McCain would be running ahead by 48-43 with 9 percent undecided.

In the theoretical Obama-McCain matchup, Strategic vision had it Obama 45-44, with 11 percent undecided.

Best indicator: Swing-state comparisons
The difference is small and totally unreliable as a prediction of what might happen in an election nine months from now, shaped by a general-election campaign that hasn’t even started. But comparing head-to-head matchups in swing states between Obama-McCain and Clinton-McCain is the single best indicator on the electability question. For all its shortcomings, this approach at least involves data. Everything else is speculation, hunches and arguable propositions.

I’ve been looking hard for such comparative matchups for the two most important swing states: Florida and Ohio. The ones I’ve found are too old and unreliable. But if there’s any polling that Democrats need at the moment to help them factor the electability issue into their late Obama-Clinton deliberations, it would be recent matchups in the key swing states by the most reputable pollsters.

For what it’s worth, right from Wikipedia, here’s the list of the closest states from 2004:

States where the margin of victory was less than 5% (and who carried it by how much).

1. Wisconsin, Kerry, 0.38%
2. Iowa, Bush, 0.67%
3. New Mexico, Bush, 0.79%
4. New Hampshire, Kerry, 1.37%
5. Ohio, Bush, 2.11%
6. Pennsylvania, Kerry, 2.50%
7. Nevada, Bush, 2.59%
8. Michigan, Kerry, 3.42%
9. Minnesota, Kerry, 3.48%
10. Oregon, Kerry, 4.16%
11. Colorado, Bush, 4.67%

States where margin of victory < 10%

1. Florida, Bush, 5.01%
2. New Jersey, Kerry, 6.68%
3. Washington, Kerry, 7.18%
4. Missouri, Bush, 7.20%
5. Delaware, Kerry, 7.60%
6. Virginia, Bush, 8.20%
7. Hawaii, Kerry, 8.75%
8. Maine, Kerry, 8.99%
9. Arkansas, Bush, 9.76%
10. California, Kerry, 9.95%

And before I go, the third most recent Wisconsin poll, completed six days ago by American Research Group, found Clinton leading Obama by a commanding 50-41.

All three polls referred to above are based on samples deemed to comprise likely primary voters.

RELATED CONTENT: Democratic delegates — by the numbers

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