Who’s Voting and Who’s Lying?

Note: This long, long, long post started out to make a simple point about the AP/Yahoo poll released this weekend and – like a number of things I’ve done to the readers of this blog – turned into one of those items that will no doubt be used as evidence in my commitment hearings. I can’t imagine anyone will have as much fun reading it as I did writing and researching it, but then again, maybe you lost your copy of Moby Dick or whatever you use to fall asleep with and this can help.  – Austin

Political junkies and others are spending a lot of time these days pondering a couple of seemingly contradictory data points:

  • As has been noted on this very blog, based on history, the Republican party and its candidates ought to be – in the words of Jim Morrison – “down so god damned far that it looks like up to me.”  Specifically, a party presiding over this level of economic disaster is usually flogged in the voting booth (think 1992 and multiply by 4-5).  We’re in the midst of an economic calamity on par with the Depression that brought to office a Democratic administration that remained in power for 20 years.

Similarly, when sitting presidents are unpopular – and no occupant of the Oval Office has ever been this unpopular for this long – his would-be political successors are pretty much toasted in the polls (think 1976 when Jerry Ford lost to Carter and 1980 when Carter lost to Reagan; add them together and multiply by whatever big number you can think of and you’ve got some idea of how bad the George W Bush brand is).

  • Voter registration trends across the country overwhelmingly favor the Democrats.  In state after state, Democratic voter registration has far outpaced GOP efforts, especially in key battleground states.  The Columbus Dispatch, for example, reported that there are a million new Democratic registrations in Ohio since 2004 versus just 356,000 new Republican registrants.  In Florida, Democrats picked up 258,000 registrants in about eight months versus 101,000 for the GOP. In North Carolina, Democrats have added a net-net of 50,000 registered voters over the GOP, 7,500 net-net in New Hamphshire and 13,000 net-net in New Mexico.
  • Voter enthusiasm – interest in voting – also has tended to favor the Democrats this election.  An enthusiastic voter is far more likely to make the effort to go to the polls, to volunteer and donate.  All those factors matter on election day when races are really decided by who turns out their supporters.  In recent elections, the GOP has benefitted from low-turnout elections because they have done a better job of motivating and turnout their ranks.  This is why on election day, all good Republicans are on their knees praying for rain.  This year, though, the motivation edge seems to favor the Donkeys.

This advantage has been at least temporarily offset by the Palin Effect but even if she is an enduring factor (there’s some evidence that the Palin Effect may not be a long-lasting phenomenon), given the voter registration numbers, this is still a positive check in the Dem’s column.

And yet…

  • Polls continue to consistently show this race as being a close one.  The latest analysis at Pollster.com has the race essentially deadlocked with both candidates holding onto just over 200 electoral votes and battling for the 128 votes left in the toss-up states.  The race has tightened considerably since the conventions, but even at his most expansive lead, Senator Obama has never opened a lot of daylight between himself and Senator McCain.

The McCain supporters (I’m pretty sure we have some) will no doubt point to the attractiveness of their candidates, particularly now that it’s the Palin/McCain ticket, and to Team McCain’s success in disavowing any connection to President Bush, the Republican Party or Senator McCain’s 26 years in Congress.  They may also note that Senator Obama has failed to make the sale with substantial numbers of undecided and traditional Democratic voters.

What’s going on?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I’ve been looking at three factors driving some of what we’re seeing – and what we’re not seeing – in the numbers.

Race. While the extent of the impact is open to debate, there’s little question in my mind that a meaningful – perhaps a decisive – number of people will not vote for Senator Obama solely because of his race.  As Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman put it, “There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean there’s only a few bigots.”

A survey released today by AP/Yahoo is shining a pretty harsh light on the problem.  At the highest level of the question, race looks pretty much of a wash:  Eight percent of the people surveyed say Senator Obama’s race makes them more likely to vote for him, 9% are less likely to vote for him and 83% say it makes no difference to them.

Those are pretty innocuous numbers and it’s also encouraging to note that the survey found that very strong majorities of whites do not associate blacks with negative qualities (more on this below).  This is true regardless of the respondent’s political predisposition in terms of being a Republican, a Democrat and an independent.

Look a little deeper into the survey numbers, though, and things look a little less benign.  The AP/Yahoo survey tried to get at the impact of race on the race in an indirect way (as opposed to the shockingly ineffective way of asking people directly if they’re racist) by looking at how strongly people associated certain personal qualities with various races:

Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe blacks, 20 percent of all whites said the word “violent” strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with “boastful,” 29 percent “complaining,” 13 percent “lazy” and 11 percent “irresponsible.” When asked about positive adjectives, whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment.

Among white Democrats, one third cited a negative adjective and, of those, 58 percent said they planned to back Obama.

The poll sought to measure latent prejudices among whites by asking about factors contributing to the state of black America. One finding: More than a quarter of white Democrats agree that “if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.”

Those who agreed with that statement were much less likely to back Obama than those who didn’t.

Among white independents, racial stereotyping is not uncommon. For example, while about 20 percent of independent voters called blacks “intelligent” or “smart,” more than one third latched on the adjective “complaining” and 24 percent said blacks were “violent.”

Nearly four in 10 white independents agreed that blacks would be better off if they “try harder.”

These are not numbers that show up in most polling.  To get at them, the AP-Yahoo News poll used a hybridized method of interviewing people online after randomly selecting and screening them over the telephone. Pure on-line surveys are often unreliable because it’s difficult to control the sample group, but there’s lots of evidence indicating that people are more likely to be honest about socially unacceptable behavior when “talking to a computer” versus a human being.

These are the numbers that, if I were the campaign manager for the first major party’s African-American candidate, I’d be pretty worried about because they imply – strongly – that some number of white voters are lying to pollsters about their voting intentions.  The AP/Yahoo methodology estimates that absent the race factor, Senator Obama would be as much as six points ahead of his current standings.

Which brings me to the second factor…

Race (again). Because this is the first time an African-American candidate has run at the top of a major party ticket, there’s a belief – on both sides of the aisle – that African-Americans will overwhelmingly support Senator Obama and – more importantly – turn out in record numbers to vote for him.

Part one of that belief – support – appears to be happening.  Senator Obama is consistently getting support from 90 percent or more of African Americans surveyed.  This is not surprising considering that African-Americans tend to support Democratic candidates generally and given the historic nature of the election.

Part two, however, is much debated and there’s no great data that measures how big an effect this might produce.  The naysayers note – correctly – that in many states with large African-American populations, only the turnout of nearly ever eligible African-American voter will affect the outcome (think Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, etc.). They also note – again correctly – that there was not much evidence of a surge of African-American votes during the primary (in fact, Senator Obama often ran behind his polling numbers throughout the second half of the primary season).

On the other hand, there is some reason to think that – in conjunction with intense voter registration efforts – heightened turnout among African-Americans in the general election could be a factor in a number of battleground states such as Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.  John Kerry lost each of those states in 2004, by 2.1 points in Ohio to 20.7 points in Indiana, but Senator Obama is running – apparently (see above) – substantially better in most of them.   Virgina, for example, went for Bush in 2004 by 8.2 points (53.7% to 45.5%), but the polling average at Pollster.com has Obama and McCain neck-and-neck in the 47s. If the pollsters are missing a substantial number of newly registered African-American voters (and others, see below), these heretofore uncounted voters might tip the scales here and elsewhere.

There is certainly potential in the African-American community if Senator Obama can tap into it.  According to the Census Bureau, 69% of eligible African-Americans were registered in 2004 versus 75% of non-Hispanic Whites (and compared to 52% of Asians and 58% of Hispanics).   In terms of voter turnout, 60% of eligible African-Americans voted in 2004 (versus 67% for non-Hispanic Whites, 47% for Hispanics and 44% for Asians).  In Ohio, which went for Bush by just 119,000 votes last time, an influx of new African-American votes could tip the state from Red to Blue.  I did a really, really rough guesstimate that there may be about 324,000 unregistered African-Americans in Ohio (according to the 2006 census there are 11,500,00 people in Ohio, 75.9% of which are eligible to vote, 12% are African-American, 31% are unregistered).

This assumes that the pollsters are missing these potential voters and/or are properly weighting the likelihood of their participation.  The pollsters are naturally a little defensive on this point as they are on their efforts to find another demographic that is in fact the third factor at work here…

Youth and/or the Cell-Phone Generation. Yes, as the critics will remind us, Democrats have predicted a hidden youth vote will rescue them at the polls all the way back to McGovern in ’72.  They didn’t…not in ’72, not in 2000, not in 2004 or any time in between.  Even so, there’s reason to believe this year might be different.

To begin with, there’s the first-time voter factor.  Most traditional polling, including most of what’s out there now, is based on the responses of likely voters.  You get to be a likely voter by – surprise – having voted before.  Thus, the models are presumptively loaded in favor of past electoral performance.  This is great, except in a year which – for a variety of reasons – ain’t like its predecessors.  As Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, put it:

“I’m a little humble here: I think the bigger worry about whether our polling is right is who is going to turn out to vote. The models aren’t very good from the past, and combine that with the well-funded, serious levels of grass-roots organization that we haven’t seen before, and I’m a little nervous.”

Now, Stan’s a Dem so it’s not out of the realm of the possible that he’s spinning a bit, but I think he has reason to worry.  The primary season saw remarkable jumps in first-time voting across states, regions, etc.  In Minnesota, for example, the turnout in the DFL caucuses was up 400 percent over 2004.  The GOP’s turnout set a record too, albeit by a much smaller margin.  The addition of Sarah Palin since the primary season seems likely to draw out even more first-time voters.

And, first-time voters tend to be disproportionately younger.  And, despite the poor track record since 18-year-olds got the right to vote, there’s been a dramatic increase in participation among the young since 2004.  A Huffington Post article notes that in 2004, 49% of eligible 18-29 year-old voters went to the polls, a 9 point increase over 2000 and that in the ten most competitive battleground states in 2004, where both campaigns targeted young voters, turnout was even higher at 64 percent.

The article goes on to note:

An increase in youth turnout will surely help the Democrats. In 2000, 18-to-29-year-old voters split their votes almost evenly between Gore and Bush. In 2004, Kerry received 54 percent of the youth vote to Bush’s 45. In the 2006 Congressional elections, 18-to-29-year-old voters supported Democratic candidates with 58 percent of their votes–six points higher than the overall voting age population. A study by Harvard’s Institute of Politics credits young voters, especially increased turnouts in college towns, with Jim Webb’s Senate victory in Virginia and Jon Tester’s Senate win in Montana (as well as that state’s new election-day voter registration law) in addition to the election of several freshman Democrats in House races.

Even by the standard of these recent trends, though, the spike in youth voting this year has been extraordinary. In Democratic primaries and caucuses, the number of young voters increased from 1.1 million to 4.9 million. (In contrast, Republican primaries attracted only 1.8 million youth voters.) A Harvard study found that compared to the 2004 primaries, the youth vote quadrupled in the Tennessee primary and almost tripled in Iowa, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas. Within the Democratic primaries, youth voters increased from 9.4 percent of all voters in 2004 to 14.3 percent this year.

Also contributing – maybe – to the underepresentation of younger voters – of all political stripes – is the much-debated “cell phone factor”.  Traditionally, polling has relied on calling people’s home phone numbers to conduct surveys, but as more and more people – about 15% of all adults (but more than 30% of adults 18-24) according to statistics reported by the Pew Research Center – can only be reached by cell phone, the potential exists that the under-representation of this group will distort survey results.  Those interested in this issue from an academic perspective are invited to check out Public Opinion Quarterly’s article on the topic.

Pew – and other pollsters – seem to think that the impact of this factor is being over-estimated:

Our most recent analyses indicate that when data from both the landline and cell samples are combined and weighted to match the U.S. population on selected demographic measures, the results for key political measures (such as presidential approval, Iraq policy, presidential primary voter preference, and party affiliation) are virtually identical to those from the landline survey alone. In 2004, the omission of cell-only voters from election polls did not create a serious bias because these cell-only voters were very similar to others in their age group who could be reached on a landline phone. But there is no guarantee that this will continue to be true in the future.

Sounds good enough for me.

What it all means (to me). I think Team Obama is both right not to admit it’s worried about the issue of race and to be worried about the issue of race in this election; a fair number of the people who are undecided really aren’t and some Obama supporters aren’t. Look for Team Obama to look for opportunities to address this head on without raising the issue themselves (and thus being accused of “playing the race card”).  Look for Team McCain to stay way, way, way away from this issue.  That said, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some independent expenditure groups walk up to the line (or over it) to do an “angry black man” ad (one significant reason Obama may not be as fiery in responding to attacks is to try to prevent such groups from getting footage that can be recontextualized for this purpose).

There is likely to be a modest positive effect on Obama’s numbers from African-Americans that may help in a few battleground states.  First-time voters will be a net-net win for Obama – maybe a big one – even with the Palin effect pulling out some FTVs for the GOP ticket.  The cell phone thing is likely a wash.

In other words, it’s still anyone’s to win, it’s still about staying on message – particularly about the economy – and it’s still about turning out your supporters on election day.

Bring it.

– Austin small business bookkeeping fine

4 thoughts on “Who’s Voting and Who’s Lying?

  1. Doggonit, We're Good Enough to Win says:

    I know we’re going to win. I believe we’re going to win. We can win, I know it. We have a shot at winning, right? I think we can win maybe. I tell myself we can win if everything breaks right. Damn it – we have to win. I am worried that this will be a repeat of ’00 and ’04. We could lose. Even Matt Lauer asked Obama today if Hillary could be substituted for Biden. We could win if Hillary were on the ticket. I’m scared. We’re going to lose again. We’re losing. Whhaaaa…

  2. PM says:

    Except that Obama is pretty consistently ahead in the polls….

    McCain’s convention bounce has disappeared, and Palin has not broadened his appeal at all, even among women (who are just where they were before the conventions). She has helped to excite the base, but she has also helped to alienate the “aristocratic” republicans (George Will and David Brooks, etc.)

    And it is still going to be a Democratic year.

    And McCain is looking and acting desperate. His performance on economic issues suggests that he is “…mad as hell and not going to take it any more!!!”

    Losing your cool in the middle of an economic crisis is NOT a good thing to do. It suggests that he is not the kind of person you want answering that phone call at 3am.

  3. Joe Loveland says:

    Great analysis Jon Boy. While the analysts on cable TV all end their sentences with several exclamation points, you are right to include question marks in your analysis.

    The race thing is particularly perplexing. So much of our racism is back of the brain, as you can see by testing your unconcious reactions, and polling can’t shed much light on that. And I suspect all the Palin talk about Obama’s first job out of college being a community organizer (wasn’t she in beauty contests at a comparable age?) is an attempt to frame Obama as an Angry Black Man, in a coded and socially accepted way.

    Anyway, there are a lot of mega-unknowns around this most unusual election, and you did a terrific job analyzing what we do and don’t know.

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