Now that the election is entering its final days, I had expected the polls to start tightening the race in order to reflect actual demonstrated conditions. For several days this has been happening in a number of major polls, but today Gallup posted a surprising number; they show Obama leading McCain by double-digit margins in all three models of their polling.
I will admit that when I first saw this, I was shocked and a bit dismayed. For all the criticism I have thrown at them, Gallup has always appeared to me to be the most professional of the polling outfits, and it they showed such a strong and consistent Obama surge at the end, then maybe I was wrong and we should expect a rout to conclude on Tuesday.
Then my brain kicked in and said , ‘hold on there, wait just a minute’. You see, there are some weird things going on here with Gallup, and yes they are important. First off, Gallup used to be simple enough; they took a poll and announced the results and internals, just as they have for decades. But this year, Gallup is running three different models, one in which they have admitted punching in inflated youth and minority race participation at unprecedented levels (their ‘expanded voter’ model). They stepped back from that when it became obvious that this model was giving numbers which did not jibe with any reasonable judgment, and tossed out a ‘traditional’ model which played the numbers with a more nominal weighting. So, for some time now we have seen three models, which have tossed out a range of support in which the ‘expanded’ model favors Obama more than the ‘traditional’ model. Yet today we see Gallup claiming 52-41 Obama in its Daily Tracking of all registered voters, 52-42 in the ‘expanded voter’ model, and 52-42 in the ‘traditional voter’ model.
Now, stop and think about why that almost has to be bogus. First, Gallup is saying that McCain lost 5 points of support and Obama gained 3 points of support in just 5 days. Does that heavy swing of support make sense? And if it does, why does Fox say McCain gained six points in the last week?
And why does Zogby show that McCain led Obama in Friday’s one-day polling, yet claim that in three-day tracking he’s still down by 5 points?
You get the idea; the volatility of the polls is a warning sign that they are not to be trusted. The trends are going different directions, and they do not even always agree with their own headlines.
But Gallup is getting a trip to the woodshed for today’s stunt. You see, they’re not being honest with you and I think I can prove it.
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Gallup has been using three different models for their reports. The first one just takes registered voters and only weights it for Census norms. The second is the ‘expanded’ model which weights the results to show heavy participation by blacks and young voters. The third model is what they are calling the ‘traditional’ model, but in fact this is not the same as past years, but is just the ‘expanded’ model with the extra black and youth votes reweighted back to historical norms, but which fails to adjust for assumptions made in the polling process and respondent pool construction.
Now think about this. Gallup claims to be using three models, yet is claiming they are producing identical results, as well as showing volatile changes in both candidates’ support levels going into the weekend. How is this possible? The only way this can be possible, is that Gallup is claiming that youths and black voters are voting the exact same way as voters overall. There’s no real way that the math works out, otherwise.
And what does Gallup say about youths and the black vote? Well, starting with the youth vote, there is not much to say. Gallup has admitted that the youth vote is not doing anything special this year.
So we should be seeing the ‘expanded’ model recede a bit, not show Obama’s lead growing, at least not because of the kids. What about the black vote? Gallup is all kinds of geeked about the black vote this year, saying they expect about a three percent increase from 2004 participation. OK, I can agree with that, but since Gallup has said they were already weighting blacks more heavily in their ‘expanded’ model, how do they explain that model surging this week, and why would the other models change as well? Frankly, the most likely possibility is that Gallup has recognized that their polling methodology used this year was in line with the ‘expanded’ model they made so much of earlier this year, and they are simply reinforcing the oversamples in anticipation of a rout which may not in fact exist.
Gallup is also getting goofy on another count: Early Voting. We’ve been hearing three things all this season about turnout – first, that we should expect around 130 million voters this year, that early voting will top 30% of all voting, and that the youth and black vote will break records this year. Gallup is reporting that as of October 31, 27% of their respondents say they have already voted and another 8% say they will vote early. Got those numbers? OK, with them in mind, let’s go visit Dr. McDonald again.
Dr. Michael McDonald at George Mason University has been tracking the early voting results. Now, we are not going to see exit polling data before the polls close on November 4, much less the actual election results, but we are getting some interesting details. Once again, I recommend everyone spend some time at his site to see the numbers for yourself.
OK, so looking at the numbers as of Saturday at 5:54 PM Texas time, we see that a total of 22,498,237 votes have been cast in early voting, known absentee and in-person votes combined. Now, if Gallup is right and 27% of the voters have done it already, that projects a total national vote of 83,326,804 voters, or a drop of 33% from 2004’s voting tallies. Dr. McDonald’s numbers come from the states’ official offices, so they’re as reliable as you will find. So, you have a choice of believing that only 83 million people are going to vote this year, or Gallup is wrong to claim that 27% of the voters voted early. If the actual tally is 130 million, then the early voters only made up about 17% of the total voters, and November 4 is going to be a madhouse.
And about that 8% who have not yet voted but plan to vote early? If we’re going to get to 130 million, then the 17% who have voted early did so over about a two-week period so far, or just about 8.5% a week. With that pace, three days of potential ‘early’ votes would project about another 3.6% of eligible voters will actually vote early, assuming the same early voting conditions exist.
So, Gallup’s assumptions about early voting may not be as big as they expected. Before I discuss what that means for November 4 conditions, let’s consider the black vote and the early voting so far.
Dr. McDonald shows that nine states are reporting voting by party affiliation, and three by racial demographic (only North Caroline is reporting results by age group, and as was reported earlier, the kids are not showing up this year either) . Among black voters, turnout where reported is indeed healthy.
Georgia is reporting that 35.1% of its early voters are black (versus 29.9% of the population and 25.7% of all registered voters), Louisiana is reporting that 36.3% of its early voters are black (versus 31.7% of its population and 31.2% of all registered voters), and North Carolina is reporting that 26.3% of its early voters are black (versus 21.7% of its population and 20.7% of all registered voters). So for those three states, early voting is averaging 4.8% ahead of population levels and 6.7% ahead of registration totals. Given the 11% representation of blacks relative to the total voter participation in 2004, an increase of 6.7% to that demographic would raise their portion of the total voter poll to 12%. Therefore, the demonstrated performance by blacks in early voting this year does not justify the heavy weighting used by Gallup.
Now, let’s look at that early voting number. Nine states are reporting participation by party affiliation. Here’s how that turns out so far:
Colorado: D 37.7%, R 35.9% (registration 32.8% D, 33.1% R)
Florida: D 45.6%, R 37.8% (registration 42.0% D, 36.1% R)
Iowa: D 47.3%, R 28.8% (registration 32.4% D, 27.8% R)
Louisiana: D 58.5%, R 28.4% (registration 52.5% D, 25.3% R)
Maine: D 42.9%, R 28.2% (registration 31.1% D, 28.1% R)
Nevada: D 49.6%, R 33.0% (registration 44.0% D, 35.6% R)
New Mexico: D 53.4%, R 32.9% (registration 50.1% D, 31.7% R)
North Carolina: D 51.8%, R 30.0% (registration 44.8% D, 34.3% R)
West Virginia: D 59.4%, R 31.5% (registration 55.7% D, 29.2% R)
For these nine states on average, the democrats are early voting at a rate 2.6 points higher than their registration, while republicans are early voting at a rate 3.4 points lower than their registration. Since the early voting currently represents 17% of the anticipated turnout this year, this works out to a total voting advantage by party of 1.02 points. Obviously, if the democrats enjoy a similar +2.6 to -3.4 turnout advantage in actual voting on November 4th, this would inflate their party advantage (assuming democrats support Obama in equal degree that republicans support McCain) by six points, which appears to explain Gallup’s sudden shift: Gallup has decided that the trend in early voting will be reflected in the November 4th turnout, which is a dangerous assumption, for the following reasons:
1. The 6-point advantage for democrats is reported in just 9 states out of 34 which have early voting; there is no clear information on party participation on the other 25 states which have early voting, and these numbers may be significantly different.
2. The record on early voting is too short to establish a statistically valid trend, but even the last two elections have shown significantly different levels of participation in voter turnout by party between early and election-day voting. There is no basis for presuming that early voting turnout will be reflected the same way on November 4.
3. Obama has urged his supporters all year long to vote early, while McCain has not made the same push. A slightly higher percentage of republicans this year than democrats have stated an intention to vote on November 4 rather than early.
4. Voters who participate in early voting will not also be participating in election-day voting. This datum is significant with regard to black voters. Black voters have been shown to be participating in the three states which release that detail, at a rate 6.7 points ahead of registration proportions. While increased participation overall by blacks may produce a modest increase (roughly 1 percent) to Obama’s support, the ceiling level of the black voter demographic necessarily means that black voter participation will decline significantly on November 4. Consequently, even if all other conditions are the same, republican participation on November 4 should be expected to improve measurably.
In conclusion, Gallup is assuming that because some democrats in some states are showing up strong in early voting, that this means a blow-out is coming. In truth the lower-than-expected totals of actual voting, combined with reports that no state so far is reporting blow-out numbers, demonstrates that the election is highly volatile and far from over, and depends as it has all along on the three key components of voter turnout, who wins the independent voter support, and which way the undecideds break. Don’t be fooled, this race is still red hot.