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Politics / On The Trail

Parties Wonder Which Side's Polls Reflect Reality

Divergent results spark apprehension about who gets the new normal, and who will be proven seriously wrong.

District of Columbia residents participate in early voting in Washington on Wednesday.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

photo of Reid Wilson
November 1, 2012

A few days ago, I sat down with Rob Jesmer, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Jesmer is usually tight-fisted about his polling; he doesn't share it with members of the media when the numbers are good for his candidates, which avoids the inevitably uncomfortable dilemma when the numbers are bad for his candidates. But he wanted to open his books, if only for a peek, to demonstrate a phenomenon happening across the political spectrum these days: His polls look nothing like polls Democrats are conducting.

It's a constant refrain from both sides these days. The two parties, the outside groups that are playing such a big role this year, and even some candidates themselves are so dubious about their own numbers that they are employing two pollsters for one race, using one to double-check the other. What flummoxes them even more is that their own party's pollsters are getting similar results, while the other side is offering a completely different take.

Whether it is the presidential contest or battles for critical Senate and House seats, the smartest pollsters in the business have spent the past three weeks looking at exactly the same data and coming to dramatically different conclusions.


That can be explained, in part at least, by the volatile history of the last three election cycles. The nearly decade-long erosion of trust in government, the economic recession, the collapse of the housing bubble, and the partisan brawls in Washington are all factors that contributed to three straight wave election cycles. Elections in 2006 and 2008 overwhelmingly favored Democrats. The 2010 midterms overwhelmingly favored Republicans.

This year, there's no wave cresting the week before Election Day, meaning that Tuesday's results will reflect the will of a deeply and bitterly divided nation, roughly the same thing we saw in 2004. We're about to see the new political normal—but after six years of dramatic waves, no one really knows what normal is supposed to look like.

Democrats argue that history shows an inexorable march toward a larger and more diverse electorate. In every election since 1992, the electorate has grown. Bill Clinton won when 83 million people cast a ballot in 1992; 100 million votes were cast in 2000, and 129 million in 2008.

And while voters tell pollsters they hate politics and politicians, their actions don't tell the same story. One prominent Democratic pollster suggested a counterintuitive cause: The explosion of cable-news channels means politics is available all the time; the constant, unceasing news cycle keeps people engaged; the increased polarization of the electorate means voters identify more closely with their party, their team; and the proliferation of absentee ballots and early-voting access makes it easier than ever to vote. That which voters say they hate most may actually be what's keeping them engaged.

In every cycle since 1992, the number of African-American and Hispanic voters has gone up as a share of the electorate. In 1992, exit polls showed 83 percent of the electorate was white. By 2008, whites made up just 74 percent of the electorate.

There's no question that President Obama's 2008 campaign, which focused on turning out new low-propensity voters in minority communities, helped inflate nonwhite voters' influence in the electorate. In Virginia alone, the nonwhite share of the electorate spiked from 21 percent in 2006 to 30 percent just two years later, a virtually unprecedented leap. The question is how many of those voters come back to the polls in 2012.

Republicans and Democrats alike believe the African-American vote is unlikely to change between 2008 and 2012. But they differ dramatically on the number of Hispanic voters who will show up at the polls—a key factor in critical battleground states like Colorado and Nevada. Republicans believe turnout will be down, depressed by Obama's failure to pursue immigration reform during his first term. Democrats think the booming number of Hispanic residents means their share of the electorate will only increase.

The same argument applies to younger voters. In 2008, 18 percent of the electorate was made up of voters between 18 and 29 years old. That's higher than the percentage has been in recent presidential years, when the youth vote has made up around 15 or 16 percent. Republicans believe the younger share of the electorate will slide slightly, and that Obama will win fewer of those voters anyway.

The manifestation of these disagreements is evident in polling weights. Most Republican pollsters are using something close to a 2008 turnout model, with the same percentage of white, black, and Hispanic voters as the electorate that first elected Obama. Most Democratic pollsters are a little more bullish on minority turnout, which helps explain some of the difference between the two sides.

Add in a population that's changing its habits and pollsters have to contend with additional confusing factors. The number of Americans without landline phones is growing, particularly among younger voters. Those voters are much more difficult to convince to complete a poll, surveyors say.

What concerns Republicans most is the fact that media polls seem to track more closely with Democratic internals than with the GOP's numbers. Internal surveys conducted for Republican candidates like George Allen in Virginia, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, and Josh Mandel in Ohio draw much rosier conclusions than polls conducted for their Democratic counterparts Tim Kaine, Rep. Joe Donnelly, and Sen. Sherrod Brown. And media surveys, at least in Virginia and Ohio, show Kaine and Brown winning (restrictive Indiana laws make polling prohibitively expensive there).

Republicans say their party is a victim of media bias—but not in the standard "Lamestream Media" sort of way. Pollsters on both sides try to persuade public surveyors that their voter-turnout models are more accurate reflections of what's going to happen on Election Day. This year, GOP pollsters and strategists believe those nonpartisan pollsters are adopting Democratic turnout models en masse.

Regardless of the cause, strategists on both sides acknowledge the difference in their internal polling. Republicans believe Democrats are counting far too much on low-propensity voters and a booming minority turnout that isn't going to materialize on Election Day. Democrats believe Republicans are hopelessly reliant on an electorate that looks far more like their party than the nation as a whole. The day after Election Day, somebody's pollsters are going to be proven seriously wrong.

Deep down, both parties secretly worry it's their side that is missing the boat.

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