Friday, November 4, 2016

Why some polls are bunk, and why you should vote early

With all sorts of pre-Election polls and predictions flying around, I wanted to forward you to this excellent column by President Obama’s former campaign manager, Jim Messina. Messina describes how Obama would question him on why he was telling Barack that Obama was leading by more than public polls indicated as the 2012 election neared. Messina ended up being right, correcting modeling the winner of all 50 states, and Messina says a lot of it comes down to the fact that most public polling isn’t accurately showing who actually votes.
With “little data,” campaigns can have direct, highly personalized conversations with voters both on- and offline, like an ad on a voter’s Facebook page addressing an issue the voter is passionate about. In 2016, we see that online political engagement rates (especially for young voters) are at a historic high.

This is why campaigns no longer pay much attention to public polls, which often use conversations with just a few hundred people to make predictions about the entire electorate. Getting a truly representative sample has become ever more difficult because of the growing percentage of households with only cellphones, the number of voters who prefer to speak a language other than English, and the difficulty in contacting younger voters, who generally don’t have landlines.

Smart campaigns can use “little data” to solve these problems. They look at public data sets that list each registered voter’s name, address, party registration and election participation history. By analyzing these voter files, they develop an accurate idea of the makeup of the electorate. Rather than rely on voters’ (frequently inaccurate) estimates of their own likelihood to vote, these campaigns look at their turnout record, thus getting a very precise idea of who “likely voters” really are. The media outlets that conduct national polls usually can’t afford to do this….
This is an interesting difference, because what it does is that instead of assuming a group of demographics and then weighting replies to whoever answers the telephone (like what is done with done with public polling), Messina is describing a universe of voters based on past behavior, and assuming that as the baseline to go off of.

Messina adds that this leads to micro-targeting, where specific sets of individuals within a larger demographic are the ones to be concentrated on, and not just a general bloc of people of a certain race or background.
When I work with campaigns, I prefer to focus on sophisticated modeling to make predictions about specific voter behavior. We can identify the key voters — not just big groups like “independent women” — with whom we want to communicate at each stage of the election, and what we want to say to persuade them or remind them to vote. For instance, campaigns in Florida no longer look at the Cuban-American electorate as a monolith — we know that younger Cuban-American voters are very supportive of the Democratic Party.

You see this clearly in the early-voting numbers. It’s crucial for campaigns to “bank” their voters and make sure their key targets vote early. I suspect the early-voting numbers coming out of Nevada contributed to the Trump campaign’s decision to spend less money on TV ads in the state.
So Messina is saying that the more frequent and known voters are encouraged to vote early to get them out of the way, allowing for more time to be spent on the less efficient activity of addressing occasional voters and “toss-up” voters, and using Election Day efforts on them. In addition, getting the votes banked means that lines are often less on Election Day for voters, and removes the deterrents of waiting or confusion at the polls. From the campaign side, early voting also can further identify which states may or may not be in play, and where extra resources should be used as the final days of the campaign happen.

I also think early voting has a definite effect on morale, one way or the other (and that seems to have an impact when you’re talking about that last fickle 5% or so). For example, when a bogus poll in Nevada dropped showing a sizable Trump lead, Nevada political expert Jon Ralston openly laughed at it, and noted a sizable Clinton/ registered Dem advantage in early voting, and that Dem lead has expanded since in that state. Wisconsin is also seeing heavy turnout in pro-Dem areas, as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said yesterday that the 38,000 people that had early voted in person in the city had already exceeded 2012’s amounts, with a few days of voting left to go.
In 2012, 36,500 early voters cast in-person absentee ballots in the City. With an average of between 3,500 and 4,500 expected over the remaining three days, the City estimates to serve close to 50,000 early voters citywide, reflecting an increase of nearly 27% over 2012. In-person and mail-in absentee voters will also represent over one in five voters citywide.
You gotta think the Trump and Johnson campaigns are looking at that and thinking “Uh oh.”

I admit that some of the reason I voted early (in addition to my frustration with the presidential race) was to add to the already-high numbers in very-blue Dane County, in the hope that a meme of “high Dem turnout” gets into the news. In my dream world, this could help to change the image of Senate and presidential races that could be close enough to steal by the Koch/GOPs, and that may be coming true as PPP reports today that Clinton is up 7 and Feingold up 5 in Wisconsin- larger leads than the Clinton +6 and Feingold +1 we saw in Wednesday’s Marquette Law School Poll. Much of that PPP lead is due to Clinton leading by 26 among the people who voted early, and Feingold leading by 15 in that group.

So yes, there is still plenty of work left to do, but in reading Messina’s column and in looking at the early voting figures around Wisconsin and the rest of the country, I’m feeling a little more relaxed regarding what might happen on Tuesday night. However, the awful consequences of Clinton or Feingold not winning are far too great for me to not have at least some worry lingering around at this point.

1 comment:

  1. Although there is a flip side that seems to be in play as I read more of this on early voting. This post from Steve Schale in Florida talks about how a large number of the Dem-registered votes in Florida are "low-propensity voters", which means the electorate is being expanded past the previous models. Now the reliable voters can supplement that number on Election Day, and that should give Dems an advantage in Florida as they count up the votes on Tuesday.

    And if Clinton wins Florida, it is GAME OVER.