It’s Time to Unskew the 2014 Election Polls

Early polling on Senate and House races may be underestimating Republican support.

Voters wait in line to pick up their ballots inside the Hamilton County Board of Elections after it opened for early voting, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012, in Cincinnati. Ohioans can cast an early ballot by mail or in person beginning Tuesday for the Nov. 6 election. 
National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Jan. 29, 2014, 3:04 p.m.

Dur­ing the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, Demo­crats mocked Re­pub­lic­an com­ment­at­ors for sug­gest­ing that pub­lic polling show­ing Pres­id­ent Obama lead­ing Mitt Rom­ney was flawed be­cause more Demo­crats than Re­pub­lic­ans were in­ter­viewed. Con­ser­vat­ives ques­tioned the motives of poll­sters and the me­dia out­lets that com­mis­sioned the sur­veys for pub­lish­ing (they said) such ob­vi­ously biased res­ults, and web­sites sprang up that “un­skewed” the num­bers to re­flect what Re­pub­lic­ans thought was closer to real­ity.

Ul­ti­mately, their cri­ti­cism was un­foun­ded. The polls cor­rectly pre­dicted Obama’s vic­tory.

But it turns out that GOP cri­tique may have come two years too early. Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an poll­sters alike agree that most of the pub­lic sur­veys on the big 2014 con­gres­sion­al races are un­der­es­tim­at­ing the level of Re­pub­lic­an sup­port in a midterm elec­tion year, which tends to be more con­ser­vat­ive than the rest of the vot­ing-age pop­u­la­tion.

That’s be­cause most pub­lic polls con­duc­ted for me­dia out­lets or by aca­dem­ics are sur­vey­ing the en­tire uni­verse of re­gistered voters, with little re­gard for wheth­er those voters will ac­tu­ally cast a bal­lot on Elec­tion Day. And in the past few midterm elec­tions, Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing voters haven’t turned out at close to the same rates as those who typ­ic­ally back GOP can­did­ates.

Cam­paign poll­sters, on the oth­er hand, con­tact only those who are likely to vote.

“We know a lot about the dif­fer­ence between” the likely midterm elect­or­ate and the over­all pool of voters, said Demo­crat­ic poll­ster John An­za­lone, whose firm works for scores of Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates run­ning this year. “It’s gonna be older, it’s gonna be whiter, it’s gonna be more Re­pub­lic­an.”

Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Glen Bol­ger offered vir­tu­ally the same as­sess­ment. “Likely voters tend to be a little older, a little bit more Re­pub­lic­an, a little more white,” he said. “And that’s the nature of the elect­or­ate, par­tic­u­larly in non­pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Re­gistered voters are a little more likely to match a pres­id­en­tial-year look.”

Exit polls aren’t in­fal­lible meas­ures of the com­pos­i­tion of the elect­or­ate, but they are in­struct­ive in show­ing the dif­fer­ence between a pres­id­en­tial- and midterm-level turnout. In 2006, 79 per­cent of voters were white. That dropped to 74 per­cent in 2008, but jumped back up to 77 per­cent in the 2010 midterms. In 2012, just 72 per­cent of voters were white, a re­cord low.

Young­er voters, in par­tic­u­lar, drop off in midterm years. Voters un­der 30 made up 12 per­cent of the 2006 and 2010 elect­or­ates, com­pared with 18 and 19 per­cent of the elect­or­ate in the last two pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, re­spect­ively.

But pub­lic poll­sters ar­gue that their sur­veys at this stage of the cam­paign aren’t meant to be pre­dict­ive. They are a snap­shot of where the elect­or­ate stands now, and just be­cause the midterm elect­or­ate has his­tor­ic­ally been older and whiter than in pres­id­en­tial years doesn’t mean it’s cor­rect to as­sume it will hap­pen again this year.

“His­tor­ic­ally, the elect­or­ate is more Re­pub­lic­an in off-year elec­tions, it’s whiter, it’s older,” said Doug Schwartz, dir­ect­or of the Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity Polling In­sti­tute in Con­necti­c­ut. “First of all, you don’t know for sure that those his­tor­ic­al pat­terns are go­ing to hold up, and even if they do hold up, you don’t know how much more Re­pub­lic­an, how older, how much more white” the elect­or­ate will be.

Schwartz says Quin­nipi­ac, which will be sur­vey­ing the com­pet­it­ive gubernat­ori­al races in Con­necti­c­ut, Flor­ida, and Pennsylvania, among oth­ers, won’t start screen­ing for likely voters un­til after the sum­mer.

“The main reas­on is that voters are not really tun­ing in closely to the cam­paigns un­til after Labor Day,” he said. “In a lot of races, you don’t have the two can­did­ates set yet…. You don’t know who’s go­ing to be a likely voter un­til that time. It’s too early to as­sess who’s go­ing to be likely to vote.”

While that’s true, it also means that plenty of voters who won’t cast bal­lots are be­ing in­cluded in these sur­veys — and that Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates might be in stronger po­s­i­tions than pub­lic polls in­dic­ate. In Oc­to­ber 2010, the re­spec­ted NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll showed more re­gistered voters favored a Con­gress con­trolled by Demo­crats, by a 2-point mar­gin. In Novem­ber, Re­pub­lic­ans romped to a his­tor­ic midterm land­slide that the sur­vey didn’t an­ti­cip­ate. Like­wise, the same sur­vey this month showed Demo­crats with the same 2-point edge.

Demo­crats aren’t auto­mat­ic­ally doomed be­cause polls of re­gistered voters overrep­res­ent voters who won’t turn out on Elec­tion Day. The demo­graph­ics of the 2010 elect­or­ate looked just like 2006, but the res­ults were vastly dif­fer­ent. Some Demo­crats also point to the Obama cam­paign’s soph­ist­ic­ated turnout op­er­a­tion, and the chances that ef­fort could com­pensate — at least in part — for the drop-off that usu­ally oc­curs in midterms.

So how can in­ter­ested ob­serv­ers ac­count for this dis­crep­ancy? For one, polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als pay less at­ten­tion to the pub­lic sur­veys than most would be­lieve, es­pe­cially judging by the volume of press re­leases gen­er­ated by the can­did­ate lead­ing in such a sur­vey.

“I nev­er get a false sense of hope from some pub­lic poll,” said An­za­lone, the Demo­crat­ic poll­ster. “As a pro­fes­sion­al, the only thing I look at is Pew,” re­fer­ring to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s na­tion­al polling on the gen­er­ic House bal­lot and oth­er is­sues.

And us­ing a crude in­stru­ment to add points to the GOP can­did­ate’s vote share to re­flect an ar­bit­rary turnout tar­get — see 2012’s “Un­skewed Polls” move­ment — isn’t the an­swer, either.

Still, if re­cent his­tory holds, when pub­lic poll­sters start screen­ing for likely voters, those track­ing these races should ex­pect a shift to­ward Re­pub­lic­ans. Un­til then, pub­lic sur­veys are best viewed as snap­shots of the over­all elect­or­ate, with­in which par­tis­ans on each side can de­term­ine at what turnout levels their can­did­ates might pre­vail.

Un­skew away.

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