Can May polls predict a November winner?

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A Quinnipiac University poll out this week found Mitt Romney with a 6-point lead over President Obama in Florida. That would seem to be very good news for the presumptive Republican nominee in what may be the biggest swing state this fall.

Except another poll, done at the same time by Marist College and NBC News, found Romney trailing Obama in Florida by 4 percentage points.

So, which is correct? And should voters and the campaigns even pay attention to state or national polls so far before the election?

Predicting Tomorrow, Today

Pollsters often ask: "If the election were held today, who would you vote for?" And right there you have a fundamental problem, says Eric Mogilnicki, a Democrat, who was chief of staff to the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The election is not being held today.

"There are so many things that are going to happen in the next six months," says Mogilnicki. "There's going to be literally a billion dollars in ads on TV, and those are going to make a difference. Economic conditions are going to make a difference. There could be events overseas that can't be anticipated now. There's going to be debates."

"Both sides are going to be working on a field organization to turn out the vote," says Mogilnicki. "It's way too early to make any assumptions about what the elections are going to be like."

Nonetheless, polls and polling stories are everywhere in the media.

Republican Jack Howard — who has worked for leaders in the House, Senate and the White House — compares it to baseball standings.

"Look at the Washington Nationals, and they're in first place. They've got a great record. But fast-forwarding that all the way to the playoffs and the World Series, you know, is a stretch," says Howard.

Helpful Hints

Still, Howard says that even this far out, polls mean a lot to the campaigns.

"I think there's a lot of value to getting a real-time fix on where you're at, what your weak spots are and what your strengths are so you can kind of calibrate your campaign," says Howard.

For example, polls last month showed President Obama with a wide lead over Romney among women.

The Romney campaign shifted strategy, and this month, polls suggest that Romney has shrunk the gender gap.

Democratic strategist Maria Cardona says you can see the same thing happening right now with Latino voters: Polls show Obama with a wide lead; Romney is trying to shrink it.

"We saw him speak to a Latino business summit," Cardona says of Romney. "He also just accepted a speaking engagement to a group of Latino elected officials in June. So polls this far out let the campaigns understand what the trends are, because two months out, one month out, it's going to be too late to change that trend."

The Momentum Factor

These polls can also have a big impact on fundraising, says Republican strategist Bruce Haynes.

"Donors like to support campaigns that they feel are going somewhere, that have an opportunity to win, that have that critical momentum behind them," says Haynes.

And he says these early polls also can mobilize people who don't give money.

"They generate momentum in terms of energy around the campaigns, how are volunteers looking at the campaign," says Haynes. "Is this a campaign that I want to support, knock on doors for, put a bumper sticker on my car for?"

So while running poorly in polls can kill a candidate, getting too far ahead can hurt, too.

"What both campaigns can claim, which is a good thing for mobilization, is that they are the underdog," says Cardona, who is already seeing this play out in the Romney and Obama camps.

"What they're saying to their base is essentially: 'This is going to be a really tight election. Your vote is going to matter more so now than in any other election in the past,' " says Cardona.

What the polls can't tell you this far out is who's going to win. On the other hand, the candidate who led in the polls in June wound up winning in three of the past four presidential races.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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