Political Animal


April 18, 2012 9:40 AM Composition of the Electorate Drives Poll Numbers

By Ed Kilgore

As I noted yesterday, the first burst of Big General Election Polls is upon us, and naturally enough, partisans have tended to focus on the data they find most pleasing, with Republicans celebrating the Gallup Tracking Poll that shows Romney up by two points, while Democrats prefer to tout a CNN/ORC survey showing Obama up by nine.

But what, precisely, explains the wide difference in the results from these two generally credible public opinion firms? Is is just statistical “noise” that should go away over time?

Ron Brownstein of National Journal has a pretty persuasive answer:

Four recent national polls, including three released in the past 24 hours, generally show the electorate dividing between President Obama and Mitt Romney along lines of class, gender and race familiar from the 2008 race.
The surveys-from ABC and the Washington Post; the Pew Research Center; CNN/ORC; and the first Gallup tracking poll, diverge in their overall results. The first three polls show Obama leading by seven, four and nine percentage points respectively; the first Gallup track placed Romney up by two percentage points.
But the Gallup track, which is conducted among registered voters, has a sample that looks much more like the electorate in 2010 than the voting population that is likely to turn out in 2012: only 22 percent of the Gallup survey was non-white, according to figures the organization provided to Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. That was close to the non-white share of the vote in 2010 (23 percent), but in 2008, minorities comprised 26 percent of all voters, according to exit polls; the Obama campaign, and other analysts, project the minority share of the vote will increase to 28 percent in 2012. In its survey, Pew, for instance, puts the non-white share at 25 percent.

I know some people think minority voting will be down in 2012 because it’s not a “historic” election like 2008 or because minority voters are disappointed in Obama, but there are few objective signs of that among African-Americans, and the Hispanic share of the electorate is steadily growing. Moreover, turnout for any voter category is much more likely to resemble the previous presidential election than the previous midterm, and historically presidential electorates are much younger and less white than midterm electorates.

As we get closer to the election, of course, pollsters will deploy all sorts of devices to estimate who will actually vote, from likely voter “screens” aimed at separating serious from casual voters to “weights” assigned to this or that demographic based on more general turnout assumptions. Now, though, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. As Brownstein concludes:

Even with their modest variations, these four surveys paint a similar picture. Obama is largely holding the minority and college-educated white women who comprise two pillars of the modern Democratic base (along with young people.) But he is facing erosion among blue-collar white men and struggling to maintain even his modest 2008 support among the two swing quadrants in the white electorate: the college-plus white men and non-college white women.
For the moment, that division of allegiances is enough to provide Obama an overall advantage (he would lead slightly even in the Gallup track if the minority share of the vote was adjusted to its level in 2008).

For all the talk we are going to hear about undecided voters, it may be the demographic composition of the electorate that matters most if the contest is as close as looks likely right now.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • TPEW on April 18, 2012 9:57 AM:

    What effect will GOP voter-suppression laws have on minority turnout?

  • Ron Byers on April 18, 2012 9:59 AM:

    TPEW, the effects of the voter suppression effort depend entirely on whether the Democratic party gets off its lazy ass early in the cycle. If the Democrats wait until the end relying on their air game, it might be game over for Obama.

  • T2 on April 18, 2012 10:07 AM:

    I could repeat what I wrote in the earlier post this morning, but Brownstein has saved me the trouble. Basically, Obama can win without much of the white male vote he got the first time, and will probably have to. I would warn him of putting too much dependence on the HIspanic vote, which is still a long way from a reliable voting block. They will certainly support him in the polls, but it is AT the polls where that group under represents itself. Under no circumstances can I see any American woman who considers herself to be "modern" voting Republican....but some will.

  • Texas Aggie on April 18, 2012 10:36 AM:

    I think the republicans realized that point a long time ago, hence the voter suppression laws that are going into effect thanks to ALEC. If Obama wants to be our next president, one of the main things he can do to ensure that is counteract the suppression laws.

    It's funny how the people who support those laws talk about being "real" Americans. In real America, voting is seen as a right, not something that should be denied to people. In Mexico, which has its own presidential elections coming up in a couple months, there are ads all over trying to get people to register to vote. They bend over backwards to make it easy to register. It is very, very sad when the Mexican political system is a lot more democratic than the American system.

  • Bootoomee on April 18, 2012 10:56 AM:

    To Texas Aggie,

    May I add that here in Britain, every resident get to vote. You don't have to prove anything! All you have to do is register online or by paper with your county/borough and you automatically get to vote. No ID, no harrassment.

    The boroughs periodically send out to every houseold a list of members who are on their voters list, with request (and spaces) for new houseold members within voting age to be included.

    It's funny that the country that shouts loudest about democracy is the one that mostly undermines it...well at least among the civilised 1st world countries. I truly sympathise with liberal Americans as your conservative brethrens give you all a very bad name.

    I am an immigrant from Africa who grew up loving the idea of America, never caring about the UK (colonisation might played a big part in that). As an adult however, I much prefer a society where my civil liberties are not debatable. I think of Trayvon (among many others) and shudder!

  • stormskies on April 18, 2012 11:08 AM:

    I would remind us here that just last week all the major polls showed Obama in a tie with white male voters. Given the facts they he leads by 20% with women, 95% with African Americans, 75% with Hispanics, these facts simply do not correlate with any of these polls. Add up the numbers yourselves. And those numbers speak for themselves. In essence this 'poll's are using methodologies that support what the pollsters want to pretend is reality for whatever their reasons may be.

  • jjm on April 18, 2012 11:29 AM:

    Amen, @stormskies...

  • low-tech cyclist on April 18, 2012 11:35 AM:

    stormskies - you're wrong. For instance, the Pew survey that Ed linked to in his previous post shows Obama losing among white men by 60-34, and even losing white women by about 5%, but making it up by winning among blacks 95-2 and Hispanics by 67-27.

  • stormskies on April 18, 2012 11:40 AM:

    ow-tech cyclist

    every poll shows Obama leading women, all women, not just white women, by at least 20 points. Just last week there was a poll that showed Obama tied with 'uneducated' white men: the blue collar worker.

  • M. Paul on April 18, 2012 11:54 AM:

    Like T2, I too will rely less on my Hispanic brothers or our African American men. It is our Sisters I am am counting on to insure President Obama's reelection. To be a little more precise it will not be the girls we see posting here on the left but rather those women who quietly follow the five steps behind their Republican partners, accept this time taking a turn to the left in the voting booth; it is their vote I am counting on.

    Polls? Just the medias way to gain a few more click throughs? I joked with my self that in trying to appear fair and balanced they just decided to post a set of numbers to keep us here happy and them over there content. I assume most of us in the know disregard those numbers for all the obvious reasons. What we can not ignore is how the low information voter interprets the information.

    M. Paul

  • Stetson Kennedy on April 18, 2012 12:05 PM:

    Using national polls, especially at such an early date, to analyze a presidential race, is like using preseason baseball scores to predict the World Series winner.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on April 18, 2012 12:27 PM:

    What all this says is that Republicans have the dumb vote. Who would have guessed?

  • Ron Byers on April 18, 2012 12:28 PM:

    We have a winner. Stetson Kennedy is absolutely right.

  • Steve LaBonne on April 18, 2012 12:44 PM:

    There are fewer genuinely undecided voters than ever; this election will pretty much be 100% about which side does a better job of turning out its committed supporters and its leaners. (2010 was too; the typical older, whiter turnout profile in midterm elections is toxic for Dems, as we saw.) Polls mean very little in that kind of environment because the thing that really matter is exactly the thing that pollsters don't have a good handle on.

  • Anonymous on April 18, 2012 4:13 PM:

    stormskies - my point was that you were wrong about Obama running even with Romney among white men.

    I brought in white women strictly as a 'not only' example, i.e. not only is he running behind among white men, but he isn't even running even among white women. If he isn't even running even among white women, you'd know he's running way behind among white men, even if you didn't know that directly.