With the US presidential election looking as if it will come down to a photo finish, the candidates’ campaigns, TV pundits and political reporters alike are poring over opinion polls like tabloid readers over the Kate Middleton photos.
President Barack Obama’s campaign is hoping to maintain his post-convention bounce, while Mitt Romney’s troubles this week have made Republicans fear they are on the brink of losing a winnable race. Either way, for the next 48 days we will all be scrutinising job approval and popularity ratings and measures of who’s best qualified to fix the economy or respond to the turmoil in the Middle East.
But some polls are going beyond the standard questions to push voters to think about who really has what it takes for the White House.
Thanks to the Washington Post/ABC News poll we know that voters think Mr Obama would make a more loyal friend, a better caregiver if they are sick and a better captain on a ship in a storm.
Esquire magazine this week reported that 58 per cent of voters think Mr Obama, who works out in a gym in his East Wing residence every morning, would win in a fist-fight compared with only 22 per cent who thought the Republican grandfather could hold his own.
Not that all questions are so earthly. The National Geographic Channel caused much amusement earlier this year when it found that Mr Obama was better suited to defend the nation against an alien invasion by a two-to-one margin.
But Public Polling Policy, a North Carolina-based polling firm close to the Democratic party, surely takes the prize for asking unconventional questions. It has quizzed voters on whether they care that the Republican nominee had once driven to Canada with Seamus the family pooch strapped to the roof of the car (no) and if all the trees in Michigan are the right height (again no) after Mr Romney delivered one of his trademark awkward lines. Last year, PPP even asked voters which Perry they preferred for president – Rick, the Texas governor; Katy, the singer; or Tyler, the Hollywood celebrity. In what was probably the only time he was in the lead, Rick Perry won.
I asked Tom Jensen of PPP about these questions – which he admitted could be “zany” – and he said they helped to reach different audiences and could sometimes be revealing.
For example, PPP last week found that 15 per cent of Ohio voters credit Mr Romney with killing Osama bin Laden. “This is a measure of how deep the Republican hatred towards Barack Obama runs that you have people who won’t even give him credit for this,” Mr Jensen says.
Indeed, Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told me she pays more attention to these unusual questions than to the standard ones. “This tells us a lot about people’s values – and they’re not necessarily fact-based,” she says.
So maybe we shouldn’t just laugh at a recent Vanity Fair poll, which found that 16 per cent of respondents would be embarrassed to be seen in public reading Mr Obama’s memoir. Only 6 per cent said the same about Fifty Shades of Grey, the S&M novel. (8 per cent said Mr Romney’s memoir would embarrass them more – but he hasn’t written one).
As Mr Obama and Mr Romney tried to outdo each other in the “who’s toughest against China” stakes, there was only one real news item in the American capital this week: the birth of a panda at the National Zoo.
Forget export subsidies and currency manipulation, DC was abuzz on Monday with the news that reluctant procreator Mei Xiang had given birth to a panda the size of a stick of butter. The zoo’s online panda-cam struggled to deal with the demand to see the newest bear.
But this being Washington, it didn’t take long for the panda to become the subject of political jokes.
Twitter was alight with jokes about the “anchor panda” – riffing on the Tea Party claim that illegal immigrants come to the US to have babies just so they can stay here – or worry about government support for unwed panda mothers. It was a lucky reprieve for Mei Xiang, who was facing deportation for failing to abide by the terms of her visa: that she boost gross panda production.
As for what the new furball should be named? Suggestions online included Fiscal Cliff and A-bear-ham Lincoln. But in keeping with Chinese tradition, the cub will probably not be named for 100 days, meaning the issue will come up at about the same time as the Bush tax cuts.