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Both Movies and Politics Have Narratives

October 27, 2008

One of the great lines in movie history is a little remembered truism typed out by actor Richard Dreyfuss while narrating the adventure story of four adolescents in the1986 Rob Reiner classic Stand By Me.

In the movie Dreyfuss is writing a short story about the summer adventure – and he is also one of the four boys in the narrative which takes place in the 1950's. He makes a brief appearance at the end of the movie as he finishes the story and types these final words into his computer, "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Does anyone?"

We can all relate to the truth in this concluding statement - but unfortunately, what may or may not be true in a political campaign is not so easily recognized.

As the 2008 presidential campaign winds down voters are ready for the election to be over. The presidential race has been the lead story in the 24-hour news cycle for over two years, and most of the voting public is tiring of the non-stop political chatter – especially the daily tracking polls.

There was a time in politics when professional polling could be relied on by the campaigns because they were consistent and their numbers were usually proven to be ultimately correct. Not so today. We all remember the Democratic primary in New Hampshire when Barrack Obama was favored by 10 points over Hillary Clinton - but in the end he lost.

One polling theory that still seems to be true is that if the leading candidate cannot get over 50% in the polls he/she might be in trouble on election day because the undecided vote usually goes to the underdog. The theory is simple: voters are well aware of the leader (usually an incumbent) and if they hesitate to commit - they are more likely to vote against that person on election day.

In this campaign most of the national surveys have Barrack Obama leading John McCain by varying amounts, and the networks and the pundits are saying the election is over. But there is an inherent bias in polling, and results can shift depending upon how the respondents are "weighted" – which means is each political party fairly represented in the polls according to actual registration figures and are the pollsters talking to likely voters?

It’s also important that women, men, and minorities are all equally represented in the polls according to registration figures - even the manner in which the ballot question is phrased can tilt the results of a poll.

Polls are further complicated because surveys are conducted via the telephone and today pollsters aren’t sure with whom in the family they are speaking to (some respondents say they are registered voters when they actually are not). Cell phone responses are also tricky to gauge - many voters no longer have land-line phones and thus these voters are hard to reach.

All this is to say that no one knows what to make of the daily tracking polls. It’s especially hard these days to predict the eventual winner from a poll. We also know that voters are making their decisions later in the process - many deciding for whom they will vote on election day itself.

The latest Newsweek, CBS, ABC/Washington Post, and FOX polls have Obama leading McCain by an average of 51-41 percent. Another set of polls including the GWU/Battleground, Hearst-Argyle, and IBD (Investors Business Daily) have Obama leading McCain by a much narrower margin 48.6 - 44.6.

Obama is struggling to get over that all important 50 percent mark in these polls. While many pundits are openly declaring Obama the sure winner - the polls suggest that both candidates may yet have reason to believe they will be the winner.

We know the election will have a narrative - but like a good movie - we need to wait for the final scene to know how it ends.