For all of the polls that are flying out almost hourly now, there are two common trends emerging: Mitt Romney is leading independents by healthy margins, and who holds the overall lead is entirely dependent on the party split within the sample. As of last night, Romney had a razor-thin lead of eight-tenths of a point nationally against an average Democratic partisan advantage of 4.4 points. In 2008, Barack Obama won the election by 7.2 points (52.9–45.7) and Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 8 points. Compared with the average today, Obama has dropped 8 points while losing only 2.6 points of the turnout advantage. That is due entirely to Romney’s strength with independent voters, and reason enough to sound the alarm in Chicago.
But of all the polls that have been released, there are two polls that will have Team Obama waking up in a cold sweat, knowing that if these polls are even somewhat accurate, they might be on the other end of a dramatic victory on Election Day: The party-affiliation polls from Gallup and Rasmussen.
Gallup released a demographic poll of likely voters from October 1 through October 24. The poll is of 9,424 likely voters — a large enough sample that the maximum margin of error is 1 point. In other words, this is a very comprehensive poll of the electorate, unlike smaller polls, that has much more reliability, especially in the subgroups, than any current national poll. The headline of the poll, “2012 U.S. Electorate Looks Like 2008,” would make Team Obama want to pick up the phone and reserve Grant Park for election-night festivities, but looking at the data inside may have them preferring to rent out a Lou Malnati’s so they can drown their sorrows in a deep-dish pizza as the results pour in.
In 2008, Gallup found the party breakdown of the electorate to be 39 percent Democrats, 29 percent Republicans, and 31 percent independents. That 10-point advantage grew to 12 points when independents were asked which party they typically leaned toward, with 54 percent identifying as Democrats and 42 percent as Republicans.
From that sample, Gallup predicted that Democratic turnout would be 10 points higher than Republican, and that independents would break to Obama. In 2008, Democrats did outperform Republicans by a slightly smaller margin, 7 points, and independents did break to Obama by 8 points. So while they might have overstated Democratic support slightly, Gallup was able to see the underlying trend, which was a huge jump from 2004, an election that was just about even.
In the current tracking poll, Gallup finds that the 10-point advantage for Democrats has now turned into a 1-point Republican advantage. The current party breakdown is now 35 percent Democrats, 36 percent Republicans, and 29 percent independents. And just in like 2008, that 1-point advantage increases when independents are asked which party they typically lean to, with 49 percent identifying as Republicans and 46 percent as Democrats. That number backs up the trends in other polling showing Romney leading among independents by large margins.
To get an idea of what this shift means, I plugged the Gallup 2008 and 2012 partisan numbers into the actual results from the 2008 election. Under Gallup’s breakdown, Obama would have won in 2008 by 9.8 points (he actually won by 7.2), and would eke out a victory against Romney in 2012 by eight-tenths of a point.
But here’s why you can feel the panic emanating from Chicago: Romney is currently doing better with independents than Obama did in 2008. Obama won independents by 8 in 2008, while Romney is currently leading by 10.6 points on average. If the independent numbers are entered in to the 2008 results, Romney would have a victory of more than 4 points. Even if Romney does not take any more crossover votes (Democrats who vote Republican and vice versa) than McCain got in 2008, he would still win by more than 4 points on Election Day.
While Team Obama loudly declares that Gallup has to be an outlier, there is one other poll that has been tracking party affiliation every day as well: Rasmussen. Just like Gallup, Rasmussen runs a daily tracking poll with about 1,500 respondents included in the partisan-affiliation breakdown. In 2008, Rasmussen found Democrats with a 7.1 percentage point advantage in turnout, which was a perfect prediction of the Democratic-turnout margin on Election Day. In September of 2012, Rasmussen has Republicans now edging Democrats by 2.6 points, with a split of 34 percent Democrats, 37 percent Republicans, and 29 percent independents. Keep in mind that September was a brutal month for Romney — between enduring Obama’s post-DNC bounce, the 47 percent video, and the media reaction to his Egypt-embassy statement. This means that October, given the debates, could be even stronger than September was for the GOP.
Regardless, taking the Rasmussen partisan breakdown of 2008 and 2012 numbers and plugging them into the actual results gives Obama a 7-point win in 2008 and Romney a half-point victory in 2012. Taking the same scenario as Gallup and moving the independent results to match the current polling average changes Romney’s half-point victory into a 5.7-point victory. (As with Gallup, I’m assuming the Republican and Democrat voting margins stay the same as they were in 2008.)
If these polls are accurate and Romney captures a popular-vote win of 4 to 6 points, there is no chance he could lose the Electoral College. In fact, that type of victory would probably yield Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, and possibly even some blue states such as Michigan or Minnesota. Overall it would be almost like 2008 in reverse, with Romney taking states many thought would be impossible a month ago.
We will find out in just over a week which pollsters end up right, but any time you have two surveys with such comprehensive data showing the same trend, it is impossible to ignore. And if you had any question as to whether or not Team Obama sees that writing on the wall, you can just watch their recent campaign activity for confirmation. A campaign with a robust, revved-up base does not sharpen attacks on core base issues such as abortion, focus interviews on the Daily Show and MTV, and hold rallies almost exclusively on college campuses. There’s barely over a week to go, and the real battle should be for the middle. Every minute that the Obama campaign can’t make a compelling argument to the middle is a minute lost to Romney and they know it, and it has them terrified.
— Josh Jordan is a small-business market-research consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @Numbersmuncher.