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The State of the Race [With Update by John]

As the GOP convenes to hold its convention, now is a good time to assess the state of the race between Obama and Romney. Sophisticated psephologists — say that quickly three times — have recently done precisely this. Both Jay Cost and Sean Trende have looked at the polls and provided their assessments. To round out the picture, add a dash of Karl Rove on the undecided vote.

Taken together, these pieces should help guard against the perils of wishful thinking. They apply the reality principle to the political horizon.

So what is the state of the race? Jay Cost puts it this way: “Barack Obama holds a narrow lead over Mitt Romney in the race for the presidency. The lead is shallow, however, and a careful look at the landscape reveals significant weaknesses for the president. The key question remains whether Romney can capitalize on them.” I just want to add a footnote to the observations of the sophisticated psephologists. (I’m working my way up to saying it three times.)

Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports is my favorite sophisticated psephologist. (There, I said it three times.) Rasmussen conducts daily polling via robocalls. His polls screen for likely voters and, in my view, provides a more reliable snapshot of the state of the race than his competitors’ polls of registered voters (or other polls that use a less accurate likely voter screen than he does). Rasmussen posts a three-day rolling average of his daily presidential tracking poll every morning and depicts the results graphically over time.

In 2008 Rasmussen nailed the result, though Nate Silver subsequently provided a detailed critique of Rasmussen’s record as of 2010. Early that year Rasmussen favorably assessed his own record. In August 2010 John Fund profiled Rasmussen for the Wall Street Journal, dubbing him “today’s leading insurgent pollster.” Silver to the contrary notwithstanding, I think Rasmussen’s daily presidential tracking poll is a particularly useful tool.

As of yesterday Rasmussen’s daily presidential tracking poll showed Obama leading the race by two points, at 47-45. Rasmussen has also added a swing state tracking poll that similarly shows Obama with a similarly narrow advantage, 46-45. Rasmussen depicts his daily presidential tracking poll results from January through yesterday in the following graph.

Over the past several months or so, Obama’s support has fluctuated within a narrow band. Forty-three percent is at the lower end of the narrow band; 47 percent is at the upper end. If Obama breaks out of this band on the upside it is probably time to worry.

I take it that Romney has his work cut out for him, but the task is eminently doable. Given the holdouts among likely voters who know Obama but aren’t sold on him, Romney’s prospects should be good. Indeed, this may have something to do with the calculated hysteria that is the most notable element of the Obama campaign so far.

JOHN adds: Along with the fact that he samples likely voters from the beginning, I think Rasmussen’s polls are especially valuable because he uses a consistent methodology. He constantly tests party affiliation and weights his results accordingly. Therefore, his results don’t swing back and forth depending on whether there happened to be more Republicans or Democrats in a given sample. Whether his final poll proves correct as a prediction depends on how accurate his turnout model is, but in the meantime, his consistent methodology makes his polls more valuable than most for spotting trends.

Unfortunately, the trend Rasmussen identifies is negative. Today’s survey has Obama leading 47%-44%, Obama’s best showing since May. Worse, in the swing states, Rasmussen currently has Obama leading by four points, 48%-44%. I interpret this to mean that Obama’s relentless onslaught of the last couple of months, aided and abetted by a compliant media, has taken a significant toll. I still think Romney will win–I don’t see how a president whose record is so bad that he can’t discuss it can possibly be re-elected–but by the time the Republican convention is over and Romney can begin spending in earnest, he will be digging himself out of a hole. It may be that Romney kept his powder dry for too long before beginning his counter-attack.

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