The polls are all over the place this year, and something like half simply make no sense whatsoever. Obama is now a known factor, and has been a disaster. Romney, whatever his faults, is an improvement over McCain. Yet Obama is supposed to be doing twice as well vs Romney as he did vs McCain? I'm sorry, but that is inconceivable, and I DO know what that word means. How can this be checked without reference to polls? Using one poll (say Rasmussen) to 'prove' that another poll (say, Fox or MSNBC) is wrong doesn't make any sense. All you are doing is showing a textbook case of confirmation bias. The only way to judge is if you are somehow able to look at the issue by looking at data that is not artificially weighted, adjusted, etc.
Where can you get such information, you ask? It depends on the state, but there is a surprisingly large amount of raw data available that I believe can be used as a sanity check. By this I am referring to votes in actual elections (rather than estimated "likely" voters), and I am referring to party preference actually reported to the state in voter registration forms. I am also referring to the TOTAL registered voter population, not a small sample taken from it, which may or, (much more likely) may NOT be representative.
I've chosen to look at Florida first, because it is not only an extremely important state in terms of electoral votes, but because it furnishes a long record of voter registration figures, including partisan breakdowns.
One of the arguments that Republicans have been making about the polls is that they seem to be ignoring the evidence from the 2010 elections. The pollsters, by and large, respond that presidential years are very different. I think that each side overstates their case a bit, but to be as fair as possible to the polls, I will only consider presidential years in this post.
In 2004, Florida had 10,301,290 registered voters:
Democrats - 4,261,249 41.4%
Republicans - 3,892,492 37.8%
Other - 2,147,549 20.8%
So, notice, Democrats had over a 3 1/2 point advantage in registration, nearly 370 thousand registered voters.
In the 2004 election, Bush won by over 380 thousand votes. The actual vote totals were:
Bush - 3,964,522
Kerry - 3,583,544
Notice that, in comparison with registered voters, Bush's vote totals were slightly greater than the number of registered Republicans (102%), while Kerry's were significantly lower (84%) than the number of registered Democrats. In 2004, either Republicans were much more motivated to vote, or they were winning a huge percentage of 'Other' affiliations, or some combination of both.
This all changed for 2008, right? Well ... to some extent, but not nearly as much as I would have thought. First, and most obvious change was in the huge surge in Democratic voter registration, and the big advantage they derived from it:
Democrats - 4,722,076 42.0%
Republicans - 4,064,301 36.1%
Other - 2,461,257 21.9%
So in 2008, Democrats now have more than a 650 thousand registration advantage, nearly 6 points. How much do they win by? Considerably less:
Obama - 4,282,367
McCain - 4,046,219
What jumps out at me is that McCain, like Bush in 2004, pulled in essentially the same number of voters as registered Republicans (99.8%), while Obama, like Kerry, pulled in a significantly lower percentage of voters/registered Democrats. He did improve over Kerry's figure (91% vs 84%), but this was a 'wave' election! In spite of that, McCain managed to cut over 400,000 off of his registered voter disadvantage!
So where does this leave us for the upcoming election? In terms of registered voters, much better shape than 2008*:
Democrats - 4,581,056 40.0%
Republicans - 4,137,890 36.1%
Other - 2,727,594 23.8%
Republicans have maintained their 2008 percentage, while Democrats have dropped 2 full percentage points. If Romney does as well as McCain did in garnering as many votes as registered Republicans, Obama has to do as well as he did in 2008 to get it even. If Obama does even slightly worse, say, 89% of registered Democrats, Romney wins. If Obama some how, some way manages to maintain his 91% from 2008 and Romney makes even a slight improvement on McCain (i.e. does as well as Bush did in 2004), Romney wins.
As the country stands, I simply can't imagine Obama doing BETTER than he did in terms of Democratic turnout in 2008. I also don't see how Republicans don't turn out better for Romney than they did for McCain. Especially in Florida. The polls showing Obama out to big leads there aren't worth the pixels they are printed on. Best case scenario for him is a close nail biter. It's more likely that Romney wins it going away - he's going to have 10 or 20 times the resources McCain did.
Look at every other election metric besides: Republican governor. Republicans control the State Senate better than 2-1. They control the State House better than 2-1. The US House delegation is Republican at better than 3-1. The US Senate is the only place the parties are even, and that seat is in jeopardy.
Hopefully tomorrow I'll be able to look at Ohio. It is much harder than Florida because they don't have nearly the same availability of records online, and they don't have partisan breakdown. However, I think I can do something similar with county registration and voting records.
*The figures from the Florida Division of elections that I downloaded were dated July 16th of this year.
UPDATE: One more point. 2008 is far and wide referred to as a Democratic 'wave' election. This is reflected in Florida by not only a huge surge in registrations, but by a large increase in Democratic participation. It makes sense that these two are linked - when an unusual number of Democrats are motivated to go out and register for a particular party, shouldn't they also be more motivated to actually go out and vote? Sure. However, this year the Democrats are faced with the opposite problem. As they are LESS motivated to register this year, doesn't it now follow that this lack of motivation also applies to registered Democrats? As their registration advantage falls back to the historical norm, should not their turnout likewise fall back to normal?