Is Barack Obama Really Underperforming in the Polls? Maybe Not

The pundits' expectations may not be in line with historical reality.

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DENVER—I wrote last week about Barack Obama's inability to match in his polling numbers the generic gap that Unnamed Democrat enjoys over Unnamed Republican, suggesting a number of reasons for Obama's apparent weakness.

Catching up on reading and E-mails over the weekend, I came across another interesting theory, this from Gallup editor Jeff Jones: Maybe, he suggests, the expectation that Obama should benefit from the atmosphere is misplaced.

Jones looks at the five presidential elections in the modern polling era in which the incumbent was not running, checking to see whether the outcomes matched the expectations given political atmosphere (specifically popularity of the incumbent not seeking re-election).

His conclusion?

Whereas a political climate explanation seems to work so well in incumbent presidential elections and midterm elections, on the surface it doesn't seem to explain the outcomes of nonincumbent elections that well, in terms of either the margin or the winner.


So in past elections in which no incumbent was running (as is the case this year), the political environment hasn't seemed as important to how the election eventually played out in an obvious way. Thus, maybe it's not that Obama is underperforming what he "should" be doing. Rather, pundits' expectations about how he should be doing may just be too high because they are relying on patterns that—though well-established—may not apply to all election years equally.

I know, I know—the notion that the pundits might be wrong is unthinkable, but ... we can at least entertain it.