In a long election season, it's never wise to get too high or too low over any one poll. Presidential elections are won at the state level, but statewide polling is fairly sporadic at this stage of the race, so we're stuck reading national polls a lot. But the latest poll is bad news for President Obama.
We all know the major issues by now to look for with individual polls: some polls are adults, and are totally useless, because only registered voters can vote. Polls of likely voters, in turn, are vastly more accurate and less Democratic-biased than polls of registered voters, many of whom also don't show up to vote. Most polls are also reported after weighting to achieve some guesstimate of the partisan breakdown of the general electorate among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Even polls that don't feature egregious hackery are an inexact science, because they rest on the pollster's current assumptions about the D/R/I split and the 'screen' they use to decide who is a likely voter. If the shape of the electorate is not as projected, the poll will be wrong.
Polling averages tend to be steadier than individual polls conducted over a few hundred respondents, and they show a tight race - the RealClearPolitics average shows Obama up 46.5%-45.1%, while the left-leaning TPMPolltracker average shows Romney up 46.1-44.2. Those averages smooth out possible outliers like last Friday's jaw-dropping Rasmussen poll showing Romney up 50-43 among likely voters. And the averages themselves get more reliable as more of the pollsters start polling likely voters - right now, Rasmussen is virtually the only pollster reporting regularly conducted polls that is polling likely rather than registered voters. Looking at RCP, Rasmussen's mid-April poll is the last likely voter poll showing President Obama in the lead.
All that said, the Obama campaign cannot be happy with the results of the latest CBS/New York Times poll - a poll of registered voters done by two organizations notoriously unfriendly to Republicans* - showing Mitt Romney leading Barack Obama 46-43. Some breakdowns below the fold.
1. This is a registered voter poll, which as noted above means it tends to favor Democrats. The weighted party-ID split is 36% D, 30% R, 34% I.
2. The trend is negative for Obama - 48-42 lead in February, 47-44 in March, tied 46-46 in April, down 43-46 in May. Whatever the methodology, if you use it consistently and show a clear trend, that says something.
3. Gender gap? Romney leads 45-42 among men, actually down from a 49-43 lead last month, but after all the "war on women" hoo-ha, Obama's 49-43 lead among women has flipped to a 46-44 Romney lead.
4. Oddly, Obama for once is polling behind his approval rating, which is up to 50% in this poll. One of the common themes of the past few years is that he tends to poll above his approval rating - people tend to like him or say they do, but don't think he's getting the job done. This, compared to the general personal and political unlikeability of Mitt Romney, is one reason why I tend to agree with Michael Barone's third scenario that there's a good chance that undecided voters wait until the last minute to resign themselves and break for Romney, much as happened in the primaries among reluctant voters who felt they had run out of better options.
The poll dropped some of the questions in last month's survey about Romney, but that poll had him tied even though voters said by 60-34 that they can't relate to him and by 62-27 that he says what people want to hear, not what he believes. In other words, it's only Romney's inherent flaws as a candidate that are even keeping this race close - people neither especially like nor trust Romney but are still dissatisfied enough with Obama to give him a shot. The longer the polls look tied, the worse things get for Obama, because it means voters haven't bought his various efforts to make Romney radioactive. Remember, all this occurs against a backdrop of voters unhappy with the direction of the country and thus predisposed to change horses.
5. Despite its near-unanimous popularity among the media, entertainment and academia, Obama's support of same-sex marriage is not an asset; by 25-16 (22-14 among independents), more voters say they are less likely rather than more likely to vote for Obama after his change of position on the issue, whereas by 23-17 (20-20 among independents), voters say they are more likely to vote for Romney as a result. Just under 60% of voters don't consider the issue a factor. Notably, the poll found that the public, by 50-46 (50-47 among independents) favors amending the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, by 67-24, voters think Obama's change of position on the issue is politically expedient rather than principled. In other words, the voters think he's being political and doing something unpopular. This is not where you want to be in an election. Yet another reason why I refer to Romney-Obama as the collision between a resistible force and a movable object.
6. 62% of voters named the economy as the number one issue and another 20% named the budget, the deficit or health care. This race will be dominated by the big-picture domestic issues, not foreign policy or social issues, as much influence as those have on the baked-in partisan divides.
POSTSCRIPT: Bad polling news for Obama is also bad for his campaign for another, more immediate reason. Both of these candidates are unusually dependent on raising vast sums of money. Obama, as a number of press accounts recently have noted, has mostly lost the confidence of Wall Street fundraisers, who were a huge element of his fundraising in 2012. Romney, by contrast, as a former private equity guy, has a natural base of support throughout the financial industry. But many potential donors are terrified of donating to Romney and seeing Obama win, given this White House's well-known efforts to target and intimidate private citizens who donate to the opposition. Perceptions shifting away from an inevitable Obama victory could have a disproportionate effect on the fundraising balance of power.