A screaming headline on Drudge, and a new Zogby poll showing McCain pulling ahead of Obama by five points means one thing only: media meltdown. Barring an Obama VP pick, this poll is certain to lead tonight on Chris Matthews, CNN and the rest of cable news – even though it's just one single data point that (for now) contradicts other polls, and even though Zogby's methods and accuracy are controversial at a minimum. ("The house of sand and Zog," Mickey Kaus memorably mocked.) It's one number, scarcely different from the last month's worth of data. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be way more worried. The Cocoon Frank Rich isn't worried. His Sunday column takes comfort in the race's underlying stability:
As I went on vacation at the end of July, Barack Obama was leading John McCain by three to four percentage points in national polls. When I returned last week he still was. But lo and behold, a whole new plot twist had rolled off the bloviation assembly line in those intervening two weeks: Obama had lost the election!
Rich is a card-carrying member of the media's "cocooning" wing — Kaus's phrase for their perfect faith that the 2004 election was "Kerry's to lose" (as ABC's The Note had it). His column then ran through the usual catechism of reasons that Obama is better than McCain and will therefore win. Curmudgeonly, right-leaning Russ Smith (the NY Press founder and longtime Mugger columnist), also isn't likely to be too concerned by Zogby. Writing for SpliceToday, Smith strangely decided to dive into the cocoon with Rich, writing that he didn't mind Rich's "bewilderment at the hundreds of articles claiming that Obama is in danger of blowing the election" because "there's no reason to believe that Obama has suddenly forfeited his formidable frontrunner status, no evidence that his extraordinary campaign team will repeat the disorganized, sullen and fractious effort of John Kerry's four years ago." Smith's conclusion starts with an oddly familiar phrase:
It's Obama's race to lose, and if the Senator is as politically savvy as he's demonstrated so far, once the convention's over he'll let his huge salaried staff and untold number of volunteers register more voters and prepare for the debates with McCain, which, given the GOP nominee's penchant for petulance and botched facts, ought to pave the way for an eight-point victory and Electoral College wipeout.
The Point For Not Getting Too Worked Up Because the media loves the sexy that dramatic new numbers bring, they predictably ignore all others, like today's Rasmussen poll showing Obama narrowly ahead, 47%-46%. Frank Rich is right about one thing: Since late July, the trend in the two daily tracking polls, Gallup and Rasmussen, has been steady: Obama has polled between 46% and 48%, according to Rasmussen, while McCain's scores ranged from 45% to 47%: A one- or two-point race. Gallup shows the same general story, although with lower numbers for both candidates (meaning, more undecideds). It's more reliable to examine each candidate's numbers separately, rather than focusing on the gap between them, as the media always does ("McCain up by 5!" "Obama up 2!"). The press never points out that a poll's margin of error applies to each candidate's number — e.g., McCain's 46% and Obama's 41%, not the 5-point gap between them, and that that margin of error has to be doubled if looking at those gaps, which are twice as volatile. Volatility, of course, is pundit gold: it allows the manufacture of storylines – for example, it will be widely said tonight that the Zogby poll is evidence that McCain's (dastardly, frivolous, misleading, as the pundits will intone) attacks on Obama's "celebrity" took their toll. Or, others will say, it's the crisis with Russia. In times of crisis, Americans will turn to a seasoned war hero like McCain. And that is how the press creates the illusion of suspense and narrative fitting their own biases by focusing on the inevitable outlier polls. Probability theory holds that one poll in 20 will be flawed beyond the announced margin of error. Since there are many more than 20 polls conducted each month, the media is guaranteed a regular diet of outlier polls with dramatically different results. Even so, this Zogby poll probably isn't deeply flawed. Most likely, it just didn't press the undecided voters very hard, to say whom they lean toward (you should probably put less stock in polls that report high numbers of undecideds). If it is correct, the poll most likely means that while McCain has now consolidated his Republicans (in early July he was polling in the mid-to-low 40's), with strong performances like last Saturday's at the Saddleback evangelical forum, it's Obama's supporters who are now shaky, for reasons having everything to do with McCain's attacks. It's hard to believe either candidate has a floor lower than about 46% — meaning that those shaky Obama supporters will probably come back when they have to make a choice. The Point for Laying Money On McCain While the Odds Are Good But Obama's decidedly not a lock. Here, Frank Rich and the cocooners are wrong: Obama does have a problem. In July, the outlier polls, which Rich rightly discounted, mostly showed spikes for Obama (as did, therefore, the polling averages) – and at the time, the Obamaphiles were ecstatic, proclaiming each 9-point or double-digit Obama lead in countless Facebook status updates. Now the outliers point the opposite way, Obama's lead in the polling average has narrowed, and Facebook is silent (unless, of course, a lot of your friends are Republicans). Under their noses – doh! this always happens in August – he has been turned into one more abnormal Martian Democrat running for president, a meme dating back to "egghead" Adlai Stevenson. To a list that includes Michael Dukakis, indulging himself with a leisurely summertime tour of Western Massachusetts as the Bushites introduced the rest of the country to Willie Horton, and John Kerry windsurfing as the Swift Boaters went to town on him, you can add Obama summering in Berlin and Hawaii while McCain morphed him into an airheaded starlet. (To the GOP's frustration, they could never make Bill Clinton into an un-American, even though he'd demonstrated against the Vietnam War on foreign soil: the greasy fries and skanky girlfriends made that impossible.) The real wise guys, of course, will think this whole discussion of national polls is pointless. "It's not a national election," they'll repeat, "it's 50 state elections!" Cocooners, who don't like the recent national trends, have been taking refuge in the RealClearPolitics electoral vote map and its "No Tossup State" option, which until just last week gave Obama an overwhelming 323 electoral votes, 53 more than needed. The wise guys are wrong, though. You should watch the national polls, if only because they are more up-to-date and consistent in quality, and allow you to follow trends. The state polls are a lagging indicator – many are not fresh, or are done by local political consultants, colleges, or newspapers with limited polling credibility. Besides, the swing states tend to swing as one, and will follow the national trends. They are politically average – that's why they're swing states. And sure enough: Today, the RealClearPolitics "No Tossup" map shows McCain ahead, with 274 electoral votes, four more than enough to get elected.