Monday, January 11, 2016

Decoding the interminable election: some campaign basics

None of this is particularly novel, but it is (or should be) interesting to people trying to understand what really happens in U.S. elections. We're in for a long season of polls, advertising, and candidate appeals. It can't hurt to deconstruct some unyielding underlying realities.

Let's jump off from a recent Pew Research Center report looking at why their polling failed to adequately predict the size of the Republican margin in contested corners of the 2014 elections. Their conclusions say something about how it all works.

Those of us who follow polling sometimes suspect that the pollsters aren't getting a sample that is genuinely representative of people who vote. Perhaps they can't find enough people willing to answer their questions? Or they don't call cell phones? Or they canvass too few people of color so views in those communities are not represented?

Pew does not attribute polling miscues to these failings. They contend their samples are adequately mathematically adjusted to overcome these sources of bias. Instead, they conclude that the questions they have been asking are not very good at determining how likely respondents are to vote. Most of us like to think of ourselves as good citizens, so saying we'll vote reinforces our self-satisfaction. We tend to say we will vote whether we actually do or not.

Pew went back and checked their respondents against the publicly available voter file. Who we vote for is secret, but whether we voted is a matter of public record. And what Pew discovered about the 2014 results told them why they underestimated the Republican vote:

Fully 73% of pre-election registered voters who supported a Republican candidate in the pre-election survey ultimately turned out to vote on Election Day, based on verified vote from the voter file. By comparison, only 61% of registered voters who supported a Democratic candidate were verified to have voted.

As an campaign junkie, I find it easy to respond "Well, duh ..." Doesn't everyone know Democrats are less likely to vote, especially in off-year elections, than Republicans? The difference in turnout also correlates with age, income, and minority status quite closely, as does party identification.

In the past, polls have built their samples from randomized telephone numbers and considered whether their respondents will actually vote as a secondary question. Pew now questions whether these queries get realistic answers and is considering whether there might be other ways to predict who will actually vote.

Campaigns approach building lists of voters to contact from the opposite direction. They look at the history of all registered voters. Voting is a habitual activity. They can assume that most people who have voted regularly in similar elections in the past will vote in the next one. Then there are people who have never yet voted or have voted occasionally -- these can be desirable targets for efforts to get them to vote. Perhaps they can be persuaded to participate ...

Of course campaigns are not interested in voting for citizenship's sake. They want to turn out supporters to vote for their candidate. In our current deeply polarized context, party registration -- mostly Democratic or Republican -- is strongly predictive of how a registered voter will cast her ballot. So if a state records a party preference (31 do at present, but varying numbers of voters "decline to state"), that is a major factor in choosing who to target. Publicly available birthdates (in some registration systems) reveal voters' ages. And data files created and massaged by the political parties do a better job every year of attaching information on the race, religious affiliations, and even some attitudes of individual voters.

Given the improving quality of available voter files, the real problem for campaigns is whether they can organize themselves to use whatever money and contact methods are available to reach those valuable needles in the registration haystack: people who would vote their way if only they actually voted.

This is laborious, expensive and takes smarts. Most turnout campaigns fail to maximize their resources for this purpose; it is simply too hard to do enough to have much result. They settle for making random noise -- or default to pushing robocalls to people who would cast a ballot anyway.

People (like me) who've worked in this field think that at best turnout campaigns can increase their candidate's vote by perhaps 1-3 percent. Of course, in a truly close election, that is the difference between winning and losing.


Rain Trueax said...

I don't let my vote be determined by the poll. I vote for someone who suits my issues and this year it'll be Bernie. I knew that last summer and have only become more convinced. I hope the polling doesn't turn some voters from him to Hillary thinking only she can win. I want to see Bernie debate someone like Trump or Cruz as they'd find it a lot harder to avoid the issues if it's him. The only thing that might've swayed me would've been if Joe had gotten in. That would have been a tougher call. I do hope that if there truly are criminal charges possible with Hillary's use of emails that the decision is made quickly, ideally early in the primary season when voters still might have a choice and it might change Joe's mind. If it happens late, it could well send the victory to the Repub :(

Vagabonde said...

I used to like politics when I lived in San Francisco in the 1960s – and at that time I could not vote as I was not a citizen yet. But here in Georgia it is very depressing. I had placed an Obama sign in our yard during the last election – then we drove in all directions 5 miles out – and ours was the only one. A poll (don’t know if it was accurate) said that 72% of Republicans in GA are for D Trump – and GA is mostly red anyway. In my area – they are deep red (some houses still have the Confederate battle flag on their houses.) I think that if one could take, let’s say $20 off their taxes if they voted, more people would vote since money is so important here. I also think they should let people vote on Sundays instead of Tuesdays when most people work or go to school. In France voting is always on Sundays and more people vote. I have received calls for polls here, but they are always from Republicans polls.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Vagabonde: thanks for jumping in. Actually, Georgia is a place that ought to give Democrats hope, though probably not in your immediate neighborhood and not for several years yet. But the increasing share of its electorate consisting of Blacks, Latinos and more open-minded urban whites points toward a swing toward Democrats, possibly by 2024. Change is happening very fast. Republicans are doing everything they can to impede it by making voting harder, but the prerequisites for a shift are coming.

I was interested in your suggestion that people ought to gain some tiny tax relief if they voted. Wonder if that would be legal? I don't know but will see if I can find out.

Hattie said...

I'd vote for a Sanders/Warren ticket. Otherwise I would prefer Hillary Clinton. Sanders waves aside women's issues and thinks other things are more important. Nothing is more important to me than women's issues.
But if a pollster asked me who I was voting for I would refuse to answer. Could be there are enough "uncooperatives" like me out there to skew the polling figures.

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