Why the polls don’t tell the whole story of the US election

 
Stephan Shakespeare
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IF EUROPEAN citizens could vote for Barack Obama, the incumbent President’s people would already be stocking up on ticker tape, celebratory balloons and patriotic banners.

A YouGov survey of seven European countries released yesterday showed that if the election was held here, Obama would receive over 90 per cent of the vote in each country, including 91 per cent in Britain.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney would fare even worse on the continent, picking up just one in 10 votes in Germany, or a paltry one in 20 in Sweden.

Turning to the US, where they will actually vote, it is much closer of course, and to make the point I will borrow from an article last week from YouGov president Peter Kellner, who brilliantly summed up where the race is now.

The headline figures from YouGov polls over the past couple of weeks show that Obama leads nationally by 48 per cent to 46 per cent and holds the advantage in enough key swing states (including Ohio) to win the election.

It is the detail behind these figures, in particular the state polling numbers, that goes some way to explaining why there is such a large discrepancy between polls.

The surveys of 25 states before and after the first televised debate were true panel surveys. We contacted the same people twice so we could look at actual change among the 25,000 people recontacted (from an initial sample of 33,000).

What we found was only a tiny movement – Obama’s lead was cut by one per cent. But 80 per cent of previous Romney supporters responded to this second wave of surveying, compared to 74 per cent of Obama supporters.

So the bigger swings that some polls have shown was not caused by voter shifts, but by Obama supporters becoming less likely to respond to surveys after the debate.

That said, an Obama victory is by no means a certainty. This remains a very tight race and the political impact of Hurricane Sandy across swathes of the east and midwest of the country is an important unknown.

YouGov will be polling again both at the state and national level. What we can say now is that the swing to Romney was not as dramatic as it might have looked. As things stand, the President is the one who should be drafting a victory speech – or at least looking at quotes for red, white and blue balloons.

Stephan Shakespeare is the chief executive of YouGov