Category Archives: Polling

So, About That Bain Controversy…Surprise! (Not)

The results of the latest CBS/NY Times poll (hat tip to Lucia for bringing this to my attention), which was in the field July 11-16 during the heart of the Bain controversy, has attracted more than its fair share of attention primarily because it has Mitt Romney holding a slim 2 point lead over Barack Obama, 45%-43%. (If you throw in leaners Romney is up 47%-46%). This is the first time Romney has “led” in a CBS/Times poll since January when he was still locked in a fight for the Republican nomination. Whenever the relative positions of the two candidates appear to change, it gets the pundits’ attention.   In truth, however, given the poll’s margin of error, the survey is showing what just about every survey of the race taken this year has shown, which is that the two candidates are essentially deadlocked.

However, this may not be what you expected if you were closely following the pronouncements from the punditocracy during the last two weeks. Despite my warning that the Bain controversy would likely have little impact on the race, the Kevin Drums and Rush Limbaughs of the pundits’ world were engaged in hand-to-hand combat in an effort frame Bain most favorably for their preferred candidate – which, of course, is one reason why I didn’t think Bain would have much impact.

The bigger reason, however, is that most voters have already made up their mind regarding who they will support, and those that haven’t aren’t really paying close attention to Bain. According to the Times survey, 38% of those surveyed are paying “some” attention to the race, while another 14% are paying “not much” and 3% “none”.   At the risk of provoking another Kevin Drum seizure, this is exactly the point I was making in my (edited) comment to Jamelle Bouie, when I noted that most of the roughly 30% of voters yet to make up their mind aren’t paying close attention to the presidential race, including specific campaign ads, at all.  (For the record, the Times survey indicates 79% of voters have made up their minds – even higher than I estimated.)

You are going to hear this from me again and again in the next several weeks, so let me apologize in advance.  The media’s fixation on the horse-race aspect of the race means they are going to exaggerate the importance of relatively trivial events, like the Romney tax returns (don’t we have a debate over releasing tax returns every four years?) because pundits and journalists that quote them are in a narrative-driven business cued to daily and even hourly deadlines.  Journalists have to file a story or more every day, and they depend on quotes and “analysis” from pundits who feed them their talking points.  If you are a political junkie, however, as are many of my readers, it is easy to get sucked into this daily narrative and lose sight of what really moves voters.  After you’ve seen the 39th analysis of why Romney isn’t releasing his tax returns, it’s easy to think this must be an important issue to most voters.  After all, Drum can’t be wrong, can he?  (Ok, it’s a rhetorical question.)

But outside the pundits’ echo chamber it’s not a very important issue – at least not to Joe and Jane Sixpack.  Instead, they’ve got deeper concerns – concerns that will determine how they vote come November.  And the number one concern is the economy.   June’s unemployment numbers, as you know, were disappointing, with only about 80,000 jobs created and the official unemployment rate still hovering above 8%. The real unemployment number is actually worse, however; if we include those who have simply stopped looking for work, the rate is probably closer to 15%.  Meanwhile, the second quarter GDP numbers are likely to show anemic growth as well, even as the first-quarter number is adjusted slightly downward.   In short, the economic news of late has not been good.

And this is where the CBS/Times survey is more revealing.   To begin, for most voters, this fall’s election is going to be primarily a referendum on Obama – not on Romney.  Only 29% of Romney supporters look on him with a “strongly favorable” attitude – but 37% support him because they “dislike” Obama.  The corresponding numbers of Obama supporters are 41% “strongly favorable” and only 23% “dislike” Romney.  This is why Bain and the tax issue aren’t gaining as much polling traction nationwide as the pundits anticipated.  According to the Times’ survey, Romney’s favorability rating, which was at 29% in April, actually went up 3% during the Bain controversy.

Obama, on the other, saw his favorability/unfavorability ratio drop significantly – largely because of continued pessimism over the economy.   By a margin of 55%-39%, more respondents “disapprove” than “approve” of Obama’s handling of the economy.  Almost 40% of respondents rate the economy as “bad” – 32% say it is “very bad”.   Only 24% of respondents think the economy is getting better – with 30% saying it is getting worse.  These trends matter because 93% of voters say that the economy is “extremely” (54%) or “very” (39%) important in determining how they will vote this fall.

But here’s the kicker, and why Obama is so vulnerable.  Fully 51% of those surveyed believe the condition of the national economy “is something the president can do a lot about”!  That’s up 10% from last September!  That is, as the economic downturn persists, people increasingly believe the President can do something about it.   Why do people hold to this belief?  Because those running for president claim that they can turn the economy around – Barack Obama said so in 2008, and Mitt Romney is making the same claim now.  Once in office, of course, no President is going to announce that he was fooling everyone, and that in fact the economy is driven by factors largely out of his control!   And so Obama is stuck facing unrealistic expectations partly fueled by his own campaign promises.

At this point, it is evident that the economy is not going to turn around quickly enough and to the degree necessary to insure Obama’s reelection.  Hence his effort to try to link Romney, by portraying him as a “vulture capitalist”, to the policies that contributed to the current economic malaise.   In truth, the President has very little choice in the matter, given the few cards he has to play.   By a margin of 49%-41%, more voters believe Romney will do a better job than Obama in handling the economy.  If he is to win reelection, Obama has to persuade enough voters that this is not true.   But he is facing an uphill climb; 64% of respondents think Obama holds “a lot” (34%) or “some” (30%) of the responsibility for the current state of the economy.  Although Obama supporters point out that those same respondents hold George W. Bush more responsible for the current economic woes, Bush isn’t on the ballot come November – Obama is.

Until then, we have almost four months of punditry to go. So, sit back and enjoy the daily food fight as the pundits debate Mitt’s tax returns and what Obama meant when he said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that” and whatever other story dominates the latest news cycle.  Just remember – most of these debates are about peripheral issues that aren’t likely to have any lasting impact.  Distilled to its essence, November’s election will largely be a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy. That means the next big campaign event is likely to take place on July 27th, when the first estimate of the second quarter GDP will be released.  In the interim, cue the pundits!

Pay No Attention To Those Polls (Or To Forecast Models Based On Them)

Brace yourselves. With the two main party nominees established, we are now entering the poll-driven media phase of presidential electoral politics.  For the next several months, media coverage will be dominated by analyses of trial heat polls pitting the two candidates head-to-head.  Journalists will use this “hard news” to paint a picture of the campaign on an almost daily basis  – who is up, who is not, which campaign frame is working, how the latest gaffe has hurt (or has not hurt) a particular candidate.  Pundits specializing in election forecasting, like the New York Times’ Nate Silver, meanwhile, will use these polls to create weekly forecasts that purport to tell us the probability that Obama or Romney will emerge victorious in November.

Be forewarned: because polls are so volatile this early in the campaign, it may appear that, consistent with journalists’ coverage, candidates’ fortunes are changing on a weekly, if not daily basis, in response to gaffes, debates, candidate messaging or other highly idiosyncratic factors.  And that, in turn, will affect the win probabilities estimated by pundits like Silver.   Every week, Silver and others will issue a report suggesting that Obama’s chances of winning has dipped by .6%, or increased by that margin, of some such figured based in part on the latest polling data.

Pay no attention to these probability assessments. In contrast to what Silver and others may suggest, Obama’s and Romney’s chances of winning are not fluctuating on an almost daily or weekly basis.  Instead, if the past is any predictor, by Labor Day, or the traditional start of the general election campaign, their odds of winning will be relatively fixed, barring a major campaign disaster or significant exogenous shock to the political system.

This is not to say, however, that polls will remain stable after Labor Day.  Instead, you are likely to see some fluctuations in trial heat polls throughout the fall months, although they will eventually converge so that by the eve of Election Day, the polls will provide an accurate indication of the election results.  At that point, of course, the forecast models based on polls, like Silver’s, will also prove accurate.   Prior to that, however you ought not to put much stock into what the polls are telling us, nor in any forecast model that incorporates them.

Indeed, many (but not all) political science forecast models eschew the use of public opinion polls altogether.  The reason is because they don’t provide any additional information to help us understand why voters decide as they do. As Doug Hibbs, whose “Bread and Peace” model is one of the more accurate predictors of presidential elections, writes, “Attitudinal-opinion poll variables are themselves affected by objective fundamentals, and consequently they supply no insight into the root causes of voting behavior, even though they may provide good predictions of election results.”  In other words, at some point polls will prove useful for telling us who will win the election, but they don’t tell us why.  And that is really what matters to political scientists, if not to pundits like Silver.

The why, of course, as longtime readers will know by heart, is rooted in the election fundamentals that determine how most people vote.  Those fundamentals include the state of the economy, whether the nation is at war, how long a particular party has been in power, the relative position of the two candidates on the ideological spectrum, and the underlying partisan preferences of voters going into the election.  Most of these factors are in place by Labor Day, and by constructing measures for them, political scientists can produce a reasonably reliable forecast of who will win the popular vote come November.  More sophisticated analyses will also make an Electoral College projection, although this is subject to a bit more uncertainty.

But if these fundamentals are in place, why do the polls vary so much?  Gary King and Andrew Gelman addressed this in an article they published a couple of decades ago, but whose findings, I think, still hold today.  Simply put, it is because voters are responding to the pollsters’ questions without having fully considered the candidates in terms of these fundamentals. And this is why, despite my claim that elections are driven by fundamentals that are largely in place by Labor Day, campaigns still matter. However, they don’t matter in the ways that journalists would have us believe: voters aren’t changing their minds in reaction to the latest gaffe, or debate results, or campaign ad.  Instead, campaigns matter because they inform voters about the fundamentals in ways that allow them to judge which candidate, based on his ideology and issue stance, better addresses the voter’s interests.  Early in the campaign, however, most potential voters simply aren’t informed regarding either candidate positions or the fundamentals more generally, so they respond to surveys on the basis of incomplete information that is often colored by media coverage.  But eventually, as they begin to focus on the race itself, this media “noise” becomes much less important, and polls will increasingly reflect voters’  “true” preferences, based on the fundamentals. And that is why Silver’s model, eventually, will prove accurate, even though it probably isn’t telling us much about the two candidates’ relative chances today, or during the next several months.

As political scientists, then, we simply need to measure those fundamentals, and then assume that as voters become “enlightened”, they will vote in ways that we expect them to vote.  And, more often than not, we are right – at least within a specified margin of error!  Now, if a candidate goes “off message” – see Al Gore in 2000 – and doesn’t play to the fundamentals, then our forecast models can go significantly wrong.  And if an election is very close – and this may well be the case in 2012 – our models will lack the precision necessary to project a winner.  But you should view this as strength – unlike some pundits who breathlessly inform us that Obama’s Electoral College vote has dropped by .02% – political scientists are sensitive to, and try to specify, the uncertainty with which they present their forecasts.  It is no use pretending our models are more accurate than they are.  Sometimes an election is too close to call, based on the fundamentals alone.

The bottom line is that despite what the media says, polls – and the forecast models such as Silver’s that incorporate them right now – aren’t worth much more than entertainment value, and they won’t be worth more than that for several months to come.  As we near Election Day, of course, it will be a different matter.  By then, however, you won’t need a fancy forecast model that incorporates a dozen variables in some “top secret” formula to predict the winner.  Nor, for that matter, do you need any political science theory. Instead, as Sam Wang has shown, a simple state-based polling model is all you need to predict the presidential Electoral College vote.  (Wang’s model was, to my knowledge, the most parsimonious and accurate one out there for 2008 among those based primarily on polling data.)  Of course, this won’t tell you why a candidate won.  For that, you listen to political scientists, not pundits.  (In Wang’s defense, he’s not pretending to do anything more than predict the winner based on polling data alone.)

So, pay no heed the next time a pundit tells you that, based on the latest polls, Obama’s win probability has dropped by .5%.  It may fuel the water cooler conversation – but it won’t tell us anything about who is going to win in 2012, and why.

Beware Those Internet “Exit Polls”!

As we prepare for tonight’s live blogging, let me warn you about a number of “exit polls” released on the web purporting to show the Romney-Santorum vote. For example, this “exit poll” from Conservative Intelligence Briefing purports to show Mitt leading Santorum by 39%-38%. Alas, this is not an exit poll of actual voters – it is, at best, a poll of likely voters and should be treated as such.  The only exit polls that have been released so far deal with some demographic data – I’ll address those later tonight.  But even these are early waves, and they may be adjusted somewhat.    So be forewarned!

As most of you know, I like to make the night interesting by presenting my own predictions based solely on polling data and intuition (not necessarily in that order!)   Tonight I’m calling a split decision – Mitt to take Arizona with 41% of the vote, but to narrowly lose to Santorum, 38%-37%, in Michigan on the strength of the crossover Democratic vote – a testament to my far-reaching blogging power (cue Operation Hilarity!)

A couple of other points to keep in mind. Although Arizona is, as of now, a winner-take-all state, it won’t necessarily stay that way if its delegation allocation system is challenged by Santorum, Gingrich or Paul during the national convention.  Remember, Arizona’s decision to go to a winner-take-all system is one of the reasons it was penalized and lost delegates. In this respect, it is similar to Florida.  So, it may matter how well Newt and Rick do there (Ron Paul too!)

Of course, if Mitt does lose Michigan, that will be the media story of the night, fair or not, no matter what happens in Arizona.   I’ll be back on in about a half hour to begin the live blogging segment.  In the interim, put the beers outside, the dog on ice, and kids on the leash, and join in!


Who Will Be The Lizard King? The Latest South Carolina Polls

It is probably no coincidence that CNN, which is hosting tomorrow’s South Carolina debate, hyped the results of its latest poll from that state as evidence “that [Romney’s] advantage over Newt Gingrich is rapidly shrinking.”   In fact, the poll taken Jan. 13-17 – a survey period almost entirely before Monday’s debate – has Romney up by 10% over Gingrich, 33% to 23%, with Santorum a distant third with 16%.   Yes, that does represent a 9% swing in Newt’s favor since the previous CNN poll two weeks before.  However, as Mark Halperin notes, that previous poll was something of an outlier because it showed Romney with a bigger lead than most other polls.  In the intervening two weeks, most other polls have shown Romney’s lead increasing – not diminishing.

Despite that caveat, I think that the tail end of the CNN survey may have caught a mini-Gingrich polling boomlet triggered not just by his strong debate performance, but also the impact of the raft of negative advertising that collectively has hit Mitt where it hurts the most: his ample wallet.

It really began, of course, with Romney’s rather indelicate remarks during the New Hampshire campaign regarding his love of pink slips and his own brushes with poverty, both of which became fodder for Newt’s campaign commercials.  Then there was the 30-minute docu-ad, funded by a pro-Newt SuperPac, chronicling Romney’s role at Bain Capital.  On Monday, in a rather stunning debate gaffe, Mitt equivocated on whether he would release his tax returns, finally saying he might do it sometime in April – when, presumably, he will have the nomination clinched.  In the aftermath of that stumble, he acknowledged that most of his income was now taxed at the 15% capital gains rate – all perfectly legit, but less than the rate many Americans pay.  He also acknowledged earning additional money through speaking fees, but said it wasn’t very much – if you consider over $300,000 from last year alone not much!  Finally, two hours ago ABC released this story with the headline “Romney Parks Millions In Offshore Tax Haven.”

Again, if you read the story, it is quite clear that Romney has done nothing wrong, and that the Cayman Islands are a tax haven for foreign investors – not for Romney.  Nonetheless, the cumulative impact of these stories has been to paint Romney as a latter day Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character in the film Wall St. who famously expounded on the virtues of greed.

All this in a state where unemployment is pushing 10%.  Needless to say, the beneficiary of the Mitt-as-Gekko storyline has been Newt Gingrich.  When John King announced the CNN poll tonight, he hinted that the results of that part of the survey done after Monday’s debate showed much greater gains for Gingrich.  Of course, given the limited sample size, we need to be cautious about interpreting the results.  We will know more tomorrow, when NBC is supposed to reveal the results of their first post-debate poll.  Gingrich – never one to take good news quietly – has now gone on record as saying he will win on Saturday.  The only question is by how much. I’m guessing he has additional internal polling results that show him gaining ground.

Meanwhile, as expected, Mitt is not taking this sitting down.  He’s rallied the Republican establishment against Newt, with an effort to brand the former Speaker as unreliable, as the following ad shows. .

All this sets up a delicious rematch in tomorrow’s debate, and I haven’t even begun to mention Santorum, whose polls numbers are slipping, or Paul, who certainly is looking to rebound.  One area that has gotten a bit of media play again is Newt’s relatively moderate stance on immigration, which may serve him well looking ahead to Florida and Nevada, but which will not play well in South Carolina.  I expect Romney to counterpunch on both these themes in tomorrow’s debate.

South Carolina: It’s Gekko vs. the Newt in the Battle To be Lizard King*

*Ok, a newt is technically an amphibian. Still….

Polls Indicate That Romney is Running Away in South Carolina…And Tebow Likely to Win Today Too!

Is Romney gaining strength in South Carolina as this Huffington Post headline proclaims?  Two recent polls indicate that he is.

But both are likely wrong.

The first poll is an interactive voice response automated poll by New Frontier Strategy (NFS) that was conducted January 11-12.  It has Romney in a comfortable lead over Newt Gingrich, 31.7% to 23%.  Perhaps the most interesting result, however, is that Ron Paul is a distant fourth, with only 9% support.  (The margin of error is +/- 3.44%).

Candidate Support
Romney 31.72%
Gingrich 23.05%
Santorum 13.88%
Paul 9.67%
Perry 5.58%
Huntsman 4.34%
Undecided 11.77%

Note that Romney’s margin over Gingrich, and his overall level of support, is larger than recent polls in South Carolina have indicated, and Paul’s support is much lower.  The reason, I think, becomes apparent when we look at the NFS’s sample’s demographics.  Most noticeably, less than five percent of their sample includes individuals 40 years old or younger – precisely the age group from which Paul draws most of his support.  At the same time, those age 60 or older constitute a whopping 55% of the sample!  Note that Romney has done quite well among older voters. For comparison purposes, exit polls from the South Carolina Republican primary in 2008 indicate only 35% of voters were 60 or older, and 33% were under 45.  Based on this, I suspect this poll is heavily under sampling Paul voters, and oversampling Romney’s.

The second poll – and the one the Huffington Post article discusses under the headline “South Carolina Primary: Mitt Romney Opens Up Big Lead In The Palmetto State” – has Romney comfortably ahead with 37% of the vote, with Paul and Santorum tied for second at 16%.  In contrast to the NFS poll, this one has Gingrich way down at 12%.  Once again, however, there is good reason not to take this poll seriously, despite the Huffington Post’s headline: the online poll included 995 South Carolina registered voters, of which 398 were Republicans and 380 Democrats. The comparable totals from 2008, based on exit polls, were 80% Republicans and 2% Democrats.  Even though South Carolina is an open primary, it is highly unlikely that Democrats are going to turn out in numbers approaching 40% of the electorate – a proportion that would almost equal the Republican level of participation.  Once again, I suspect this poll is overstating Romney’s support and likely understating Gingrich’s.

Bottom line?  Tim Tebow’s chances of winning today are better than the likelihood that these polls are accurate.