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Jay Cost on the Volatility of the Race

September 30, 2008

Jay Cost of RCP breaks down the polling data:

Immediately prior to the start of the Democratic National Convention, Obama led in the RCP average 45.5% to 43.9%. In June, he had an average lead of 47.1% to 42.4%. So, from June to the beginning of the conventions, McCain whittled down Obama’s lead from 4.5 points to 1.6 points. The Republican National Convention put him ahead of Obama, but recent events have wiped that lead away. Currently, the race stands roughly where it did in June, though McCain is in a slightly better position.

It stands to reason that the financial situation has been a campaign “moment” that has favored Barack Obama. So far, its effect is similar to him winning the nomination in June or heading to Europe in July.

A additional few points are worth noting.

First, the number of undecided voters has increased in the last three weeks, from a low of 6.3% of the electorate on 9/8 to 8.8% last night.

Second, the polls themselves have been very volatile this month. The Gallup tracking poll had a crazy week last week, and individual pollsters are disagreeing with each other quite a bit. Much of the disagreement has to do with McCain’s share of the vote. The standard deviation of McCain’s share in the current RCP average is 2.8%. Obama’s is 2.0%. [The standard deviation is the average distance between an individual poll’s result and the average of all polls.] By comparison, the final RCP average in 2004 had John Kerry’s standard deviation at 1.7% and Bush’s at 1.3%. This is a sign of volatility in the current race. Pollsters are finding fairly divergent results.

Third, there is a good subset of the electorate that claims to make up its mind in October or November. That might be hard for political junkies who have been following every twist and turn for 18 months to believe – but it’s true! In 1996, 30% of respondents claimed to make up their minds a day to a month before the election. In 2000, that number was also 30%. In 2004, 21% of the public made that claim.

If anything, the chart and Jay’s analysis indicate that gloom and doom is not what we should be feeling… yet.  This race is far too volatile and the increase in undecideds is a good thing.  More than a few undecideds will base their choice not solely on the economy but on a myriad of possible future circumstnaces. There is a giant Russian gorilla waiting in the back of the room.  While the financial crisis is first and foremost on people’s minds, defense should not be too far behind.  When McCain looked into Putin’s soul, he saw KGB. If Putin has to look into Obama’s soul, he’ll see “puff pastry”

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