Do Polls Showing Obama In the Lead Hurt Romney?

As polls throughout September showed President Obama gaining a slight lead over Mitt Romney, the Romney campaign and its defenders told Republicans to ignore the results as nothing more than a media-led plot to keep depressed Republicans away from the voting booth. Here’s Rush Limbaugh, just one of many touting this theory, for instance:

“The polls are just being used as another tool of voter suppression. The polls are an attempt to not reflect public opinion, but to shape it. Yours. They want to depress the heck out of you, and they want to suppress your vote.”

Some of these people pointed to a website called “Unskewed Polls,” which believes that most polls oversampled Democrats, and so re-weighted them to show that, aha Romney is in the lead. It’s a pretty suspect methodology, but we won’t get too much into why it’s not very reliable. The point is, this whole battle over whether the polls are doctored would have struck us as nothing more than usual claims of media bias, except for one thing: If the goal is to elect Romney, and polls show Romney losing, is it really a very sound strategy to stick one’s head in the sand? Why not instead say “Okay, we need to work hard to turn out our base on election day to make up the deficit and the Romney campaign needs to work hard to change those numbers?” Unless, of course, you believe what you’re telling your listeners: you believe that these polls do actually hurt Romney’s turnout more than Obama’s. 

Looking into this, we read the report about a University of Connecticut poll in which the poll director, a woman named Jennifer Necci Dineen, said, “If Democrats can convince voters that Obama’s re-election is inevitable, Republicans who are less enthusiastic about Romney are more likely to stay home on Election Day.” Dineen, a faculty member at UConn’s Public Policy department  sounds like a more reliable expert on polling data than, oh, Rush Limbaugh, but there she is saying basically the same thing.

So now we were legitimately curious: Is there actual scholarly evidence to this Limbaugh-touted theory? Could it be that polls showing an uncompetitive race actually do convince the projected loser’s supporters to stay home on election day more than they suppress the projected winner’s supporters?

We called up Dineen and the short answer is: Not really. She says her quote came in the context of a larger conversation, and she was talking more about undecided voters than Republican voters. Polls showing Obama ahead could hurt Romney, but not for the Limbaughian reason. “We know the undecideds are sort of iffy, and a lot of what we know about undecided voters is that as you get closer to an election they’re less likely to turn out at all,” Dineen tells us. “As you get closer to the election if you’re still that undecided, those people tend to stay home.” That’s especially true if they think the election is a done deal. The reason this helps Obama: he’s slightly ahead of Romney, and all the undecided voters that might have swung Romney’s way are now not voting. Boom. Obama wins.

We see only one problem. That requires the poll that shows Obama in the lead be correct. If Romney’s in the lead, as the “unskewed” polls suggest, and the undecideds stay away, Romney wins! And the liberal media polling conspiracy will have shot itself in the foot. So again, why the Republican complaining?

We asked a few more professors about all this, and the consensus was the same. There’s evidence that polls suggesting a runaway election hurt overall turnout. (Though scholars aren’t agreed just why that is.) There’s no evidence, though, that this affects one candidate’s voters proportionally more than it affects the other’s.

“Even if lopsided races depress turnout (which they do), I know of no theory or empirical result which suggests that,” writes Yale School of Management Professor Barry Nalebuff in an e-mail.

That said, there are small ways that polls showing an Obama lead might help Obama. (Somewhere, Rush Limbaugh’s ears just perked up.) Says UCLA Professor James DeNardo, who has studied voter behavior for decades, “Weakly committed voters and undecideds do appear prone to bandwagon effects that pull them toward the frontrunner … however their turnout is often unreliable.” He calls that effect “small.”

Polls showing a decisive victory for one candidate could also cause the losing campaign to put in a weaker effort to get out the vote, notes Eitan Hersh, a Yale political science professor. “In races that are truly not competitive, campaigns don’t really do the job of informing, persuading, and mobilizing voters.” So turnout might be hurt, but only if the Romney campaign gives up. And in American presidential politics, campaigns don’t just give up. “At the presidential level, campaigns on both sides will be in full swing till the very end, at least in the states that they each consider important to their victory,” Hersh says.

There are also ways in which polling numbers showing an Obama lead could help Romney. (Rush just tuned out, again.) “Think of a lopsided tennis match,” says Nalebuff. “The favorite may not work as hard to conserve energy. The underdog might try to work harder (if he or she doesn’t give up).” Given how prepared Romney looked for the first debate this week, a must-win for him, and how unprepared Obama appeared, it seems like we’re already seeing the positive benefit of bad polling on Romney’s campaign.

To sum up: As a race looks more and more decided, turnout declines. Some people think these polls keep undecided voters away, in particular. If Obama’s winning among decided voters, this will allow Obama to win. (If he’s not, and the polls are “skewed,” it won’t.) Undecided voters could also bandwagon with the perceived winner, in this case, Obama, but probably not in great numbers, especially if they perceive an uncompetitive election and don’t vote at all. And the polling numbers could also serve to motivate the losing campaign to work harder, and trick the winning campaign into a sense of complacency, causing, oh I don’t know, a terrific rout at the first debate.

No poll is going to be a totally foolproof prediction of the actual results we’ll see on election day. But there’s no reason to believe those that whine about a media conspiracy to doctor the polls in Obama’s favor or to pay attention to efforts to “unskew” those “doctored” polls. This was our intuition at the beginning of all this. And it remains our sense now, though at least we have a few scholars to justify that confidence.