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Conflicting Polls Cloud Strategic Choices of Political Campaigns

Analysis: The pollsters are offering conflicting snapshots of the electoral picture, complicating choices for both campaigns.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 10/12/2012, 4:12 AM

Ronmey in Ohio
Ronmey in Ohio
Reuters

While pollsters are in agreement that the presidential race has tightened following Mitt Romney's successful debate performance, there continue to be huge discrepancies between the pollsters on both the national and on the state level.

For example, the Suffolk polling organization no longer regards North Carolina, Virginia and Florida as battleground states, but has definitively identified them as red states - irrevocably in Mitt Romney's column.

Other pollsters, while conceding Romney's advantage in North Carolina, still regard the other states as too close to call and some even give Barack Obama the edge.

In addition to the specific poll numbers, there are also two competing narratives about the electorate itself.

One view believes that the number of floating voters, while decisive, is also quite small and both parties have their 47%, in line with Mitt Romney's much criticized statement. Some may temporarily stray off the reservation, but the gravitational pull of their partisanship eventually restores the contest to near deadlock. Exponents of this view include the appropriately named Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics and Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard.

However, given the tremendous swing to Romney following the first debate, where he instantaneously closed his 18-point deficit to Obama among female voters, others have reached an opposite conclusion - namely, that a large percentage of the electorate is undecided and is looking to Romney for proof that he will furnish a more attractive alternative than the incumbent.

The discrepancies between the pollsters are undoubtedly causing consternation at both Romney and Obama campaign headquarters. A presidential nominee is the equivalent of the Queen in a game of chess. He is the most powerful piece on the board but he cannot be everywhere.

Take the case of Pennsylvania. Does one believe that this state, once considered a lock for Obama, is now competitive? Two polls have Obama leading by 2-3% while another has Obama up by 8%. Both cannot be right, but the consequences can be decisive. If Romney could capture Pennsylvania, he could possibly dispense with Ohio as part of a path to capturing a majority in the Electoral College.

Romney's home state of Michigan displays a similar pattern.

More than one pollster is going to look embarrassed once the election results are in, but for now the campaigns will use them and perhaps go with their gut feeling.