There was a time when images of American embassies under siege and a United States ambassador being dragged through the streets by a baying mob would have represented serious trouble for the administration in power, especially when coupled with obvious dishonesty about the circumstances that led to the debacle and an apparent lack of foresight and prudence on the part of the State Department. If anything might be expected to move the polls, this should be it. Yet the effects of the last week’s events on polling in the presidential race have been: nothing.
Most polls bounce around because the composition of the sample is ever-changing. Pollsters will sample a lot of Democrats, and breathless headlines then allege that Obama is surging–while, at the same time, Romney is leading among independents by eight points. As I have written before, I think the Rasmussen poll is valuable not only because it samples likely voters, but because it uses a consistent methodology that normalizes responses according to the current mix of party affiliation, which is separately tested on a regular basis. Therefore, shifts in Rasmussen’s numbers probably represent real trends, rather than merely reflecting a different sample composition.
So how have Rasmussen’s numbers been affected by the crumbling of Barack Obama’s foreign policy? They haven’t been. At all. Today, Romney leads Obama 47%-46%, not a significantly different finding from those that preceded Obama’s foreign policy disasters.
How can this be? I think it is a manifestation of the frequently-commented-upon polarization of the electorate. As I wrote here, this election shouldn’t be close, on paper, given Obama’s record of abject failure. But so many Americans are now cashing federal checks that self-interest drives many millions to vote Democrat, regardless of the public interest. Another factor is at work, too: more than ever, party affiliation reflects not so much empirical judgments about public policy issues, but deep-seated cultural affinity. As I noted here, the extent to which regular church attendance, or the lack thereof, is a predictor of presidential preference is shocking.
So, when you put those elements together, it seems that fewer and fewer votes are up for grabs. I can relate: it is difficult to imagine circumstances that would cause me to vote for a Democrat for any office. For better or worse, and for good reasons or bad, an enormous number of Americans feel that way. The result is that there are many millions who would rather vote for four more years of failure than vote for a Republican. More evidence of incompetence, whether on the economy or foreign policy, doesn’t sway their determination to vote Democrat.
The conventional wisdom is that the presidential debates are the next events that could shift significant numbers of votes. Maybe, but I doubt it. I will be surprised if the debates have more than a small and transient impact. Given the reasons why most voters align with one party or the other, something as mundane as a discussion of public policy isn’t likely to have much effect.
If all of that is correct, and given that the election now stands within the margin of error in any competent polling, it will come down to which side does the better job of turning out the members of its tribe. We can only hope that the Obama administration’s comprehensive failure dampens the enthusiasm of at least a handful of those whose monetary interest or cultural affinity normally leads them to pull the lever for Democrats.