Races by the numbers

Nevadans are being bombarded with frequent phone surveys these days. Most of them are designed to figure out that presidential race, but some are efforts down ticket to push and pull the electorate.

Since many of you have been e-mailing or calling about what this all means, it may be instructive to do a little polling primer.

First of all, polls are still reasonably accurate — that’s why news organizations and political operatives rely on them.

Barack Obama’s camp routinely says many of their supporters are new to the process, or don’t have land lines, and thus, aren’t polled. To some extent this is true. I have yet to be polled on my cell phone.

But by and large, polls do often fall within their margin of error. And when you look at a story about a poll, you’ve got to consider that margin. For example, the Ipsos poll on the Review-Journal’s front page Wednesday gave Obama a 1-point edge. In theory, he could be up 4 points or John McCain could be up 2 points.

What that poll really shows is that if the election were a national contest, it would be a coin flip, according to that poll.

Many national polls taken during the same period of time give Obama a slightly bigger advantage — usually in the 3-point range. That fits well within the margin of the Ipsos poll.

So, on the surface, those instruments seem to be measuring very similar results.

Also on Wednesday, however, The Washington Post and ABC News released a national poll showing Obama with a 9-point edge. The poll suggested concerns about the economy were sending more voters to Obama.

What should Nevada voters make of all of this? Not too much.

The polls that matter, as we’re told time and again, are the ones on Nov. 4, right?

Well, not exactly. Getting back to the old primer.

Any time you see a national poll, remember we don’t have a national election for president. There are 51 elections on Nov. 4 for president. And, when you do the Electoral College math the race looks decidedly different.

Most of those who look at it state by state have Obama the winner. The Web site Politco.com, for example, puts the race at 273 electoral votes for Obama and 265 for McCain. But Obama can make a good argument in Nevada, where Democrats now have at least a 60,000-vote edge statewide.

Some national maps do have Nevada trending blue, including The Washington Post’s.

Real Clear Politics keeps Nevada in the red column because the average of the three most recent polls in the state give McCain a 1.7 percent advantage.

The most recent poll, conducted by Suffolk University from Sept. 17-21, gave McCain a half-point lead over Obama. That’s 45.8 to 45.3 statewide. The same poll gave Obama the win in Washoe County, 42 percent to 38 percent. The other candidates each get 1 percent.

If Obama breaks even in Washoe, picks up a few votes in the rurals, he wins, right? There are 100,000 more Democrats in Clark County, after all.

What this all really means assuming the polling stays the same in Nevada, is that every vote will matter. The past two elections here were decided by 21,000 votes. This one should be closer.

The winner on Nov. 4 (maybe we’ll actually know on Nov. 5) is going to be the campaign that does a better job getting its supporters to the polls.

Crazy things happen nationally when the parties and campaigns see a toss-up or feel the race is slipping one way or the other.

The National Republican Campaign Committee has pulled two weeks of ads on behalf of Porter. Is the committee sending resources elsewhere because they think the 3rd is already lost?

In the battle for control of the state Senate, Democrats are spending scads of money on mailers, Web sites and other attacks on the two Republican incumbents in districts that now have more Democrats in them. The Republicans recently did polls that show Democrat Allison Copening within the margin against Bob Beers.

Since Democrats only need one seat to take control, the poll could give them even more reason to dump money into the race.

If you think it’s been ugly, you haven’t seen anything yet. And while negative ads work, they can ultimately end up hurting. If voters perceive the attacks on Beers as so over the top, they might actually rally to him.

That’s Dina Titus’ strategy, after all. She’s painting Porter as a liar for his negative television ads. She’ll also have at least 30,000 more Democrats in the district by the time voting starts.

The bottom line is that polls do impact both how candidates run and the tenor of the campaign. They also do capture a certain snapshot of the races.

We can argue whether Nevada is still red or trending blue. But it’s not something any poll can really tell us until Election Day.


Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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