Let's Debunk Some Notions in Election Polling

Almost everyone from the media to the public (and even the odd analyst) is using sloppy language when discussing groups of voters and polling. Somebody’s going to get burned on November 6 because they’re making mistakes. Dear reader, don’t let it be you. Make sure you don’t fall into the following traps as you do your own analysis on the election.  

“Independents” are not synonymous with “Moderates”

They’re actually pretty opposite of each other. Independents belong to no political party. Moderates are Republicans or Democrats sit closer to the national ideological center than other members of their party do.

These groups also display different voting behaviors based on the political landscape. Moderates tend to vote a straight ticket with their own party when things are calm. When there’s turmoil in their party, some moderates will vote for the other mainline party, though many will vote for a third party instead. Worse, many more stay home. Crossing over to the other party is somewhat unusual for moderates; the term “Reagan Democrat” gained a foothold in our political language to commemorate such an odd phenomenon.

Independent voters are persuadable by both mainline parties –but only if they are somewhat centrist in nature, which brings us to my next point.


“Independents” are not synonymous with “Centrists”

Exhibit A: Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Last time I was on the Hill, someone told me with a wink that Bernie went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and never really returned. That’s harsh, but imagine Senator Sanders was a private citizen. He’s not persuadable — at least not by Republicans. Similarly, there are people on the far-right who would never vote Democrat.

Being a centrist is sitting right at or close to the middle of the political spectrum. Independents feel free to identify with different points all over the board to best suit one’s ideology.

There are indeed many independents who are centrists to some degree as well (Exhibit B: the owner of this eponymously-named website). But the overlap is nowhere near complete.


“Adults” are not the same as “voters”

I’m an adult, biologically anyway. I’m not a US citizen, so even if I have “Beto-mania” or strongly prefer that nice Canadian-born chap running against him (my own kind!), I can’t vote. My wife’s Russian. God knows how many times she’s voted already (she’s always on her phone).


“Registered Voters” are not the same as “Likely Voters”

Lots of people register to vote – perhaps while renewing a driver’s license – but that doesn’t ensure they turn up on Election Day. There are plenty of ways to attempt to coax registered to become actual voters, but any number of factors (unmotivated, can’t get to their polling place, disdain for the activity, etc.) may prevent them from making their voice heard. A good measure of probable voting for these midterms is whether or not the person voted in the last midterm. Other variables that determine how likely a person is to vote include race, age, and education level. It’s up to us to bump these variables, so everyone able to vote in the United States shows up.

The polling of Likely Voters will give more accurate results than polls that include people like me in the data.


Races where candidates’ support overlap within the margin of error are not “statistically tied”

This one drives me bananas. This is akin to saying that a sports team “controls their own destiny.” You can’t control destiny; it’s destiny for crying out loud. The margin of error is a way to express a statistical confidence level regarding accuracy, but if you’re up four points, you’re up four points.

Put another way, if you’re at 53% with a margin of error of 5%, you’re just as likely to be at 58% as 48% – and if the sampling is done well, you really should be closer to 53% than to the edges of the range.


Not enough polls look at “soft support”

If a Republican is running against Democrat, most polls will ask who you’re voting for, with an undecided option. Bah! The following is more useful as a set of options:

  • Definitely Republican
  • More likely Republican than Democrat
  • More likely Democrat than Republican
  • Definitely Democrat

This lets the people crafting messages and allocating funds decide if a race is still in play, as it gauges soft support.

Voting is one of the most important and easiest things you can do in your country. If you’re an American citizen, find information about registering to vote and rules here. If you’re registered and want to preview your ballot to get as informed as possible, go here.

Keep your eyes and ears open. The stretch drive to this election is going to be fun.