November 9, 2008 - November 15, 2008


White Vote for Obama in the States, Part 2

An update and extension on my earlier post about the white vote for Obama. Thanks for a number of helpful thoughts in the comments on the earlier post.

First, the plot above shows how Kerry did among whites in comparison to Obama's performance. Normally when a party improves from one election to another, it does so across most demographic groups. This holds true for Obama vs Kerry in general and among whites in particular, as I showed in this post on Demographic Groups and Votes. But what about in the states?

For states below 25% African American, the trend line for Obama is above that for Kerry, indicating a general improvement among whites. (Note this is the TREND, individual states may differ-- see below.) But in the deepest of Southern states, which are also the states with the highest African American percentages, Obama falls below the Kerry vote. Now this is based on just four states, GA, AL, MS and LA, but those are also the states in which Obama had his worst performance with white voters.

So in terms of the overall trend, Obama generally improved among whites, but the shift in trend towards the right of the chart is significant.

What about the shifts by individual states, rather than the overall trend? See below:
Three of the four deep south states dropped clearly below their 2004 white support for Kerry. Georgia did not, matching it's 23% white support for the Democrat in both years. Mississippi, the lowest state in 2004, shifted from 14% to 11%, while my home state of Alabama dropped from 19% to 10%, claiming the prize for lowest white support for Obama of any state in the Union. Louisiana went from 24% to 14%, the largest point drop of all. 

One other southern state registered a notable drop, Arkansas fell from 36% white support for Kerry to 30% for Obama.

Other states that declined in white support did so by small amounts and for obvious political reasons: Alaska, Arizona and ... Massachusetts. 

Two other non-southern states showed small declines: New Mexico (43% down to 42%) and West Virginia (42% down to 41%).  All these last five are inside the confidence interval for no change.

There were a number of states with considerable increases (labeled in the chart for a five point or greater gain.) The most interesting are North Carolina (up from 27% to 35%) and Virginia (up from 32% to 39%.)  Clearly Obama could not have won those states on the white vote alone, but those shifts amount to roughly a 5-6 point boost in statewide vote share, certainly enough to matter. 

Also interesting are traditional red states Indiana and Kansas, with gains from 34% to 45% and from 34% to 40% respectively. Also Montana and North Dakota are notable, with gains from 39% to 45% and from 35% to 42%. While the Democrat didn't win three of these four states, these shifts demonstrate that they are no longer as out of reach for Dems as recent past elections might have suggested.

But to also put this in perspective, most of the states shifted up by what we'd expect when a party goes from losing to winning. That means these gains are by no means now part of the "base" Democratic vote. Rather they show that most of the country found whites shifting to Obama much as they would for other Democratic candidates in a good year for Democrats. (We await further analysis to decide if the shift was as much, more or less than one might have expected with a white candidate.)  So it is now up to the coming Obama administration to do well and solidify this support, or to do poorly and lose it to an advantaged Republican candidate in 2012. The next four years will determine that legacy of the 2008 election, not what happened on November 4th alone. 

The GOP Faces Long-Term Challenge With Young and Independents

Prior to the 2008 Presidential Election, there was an incredible amount of discussion about the extent to which Senator Barack Obama's massive voter registration and turnout efforts would dramatically impact the election. Young voters and African-Americans in particular were believed to be the two groups that would deliver the Presidency to Barack Obama.

However, on election day, the proportion of young voters and African-Americans as a percentage of the electorate was not dramatically different from 2004. First-time voters made up 11% of all voters - the same as in 2004. Furthermore, the number of voters overall at the ballot box at the Presidential level was not significantly higher than turnout in 2004. (The ballots are still being tallied and recounted in some places, but I am seeing just a little over 3 million more votes this year.)

So what did it? I would argue that even though the numbers appear somewhat stagnant in the aggregate, Obama's ground game created some gains among Democrats (3.6 million more in 08 over 04), while 5 million fewer Republican voters came out (or, perhaps even worse for the GOP, many these voters likely identified as Independents - turnout among Independents was up by about 4.5 million voters). This party ID gap played a role, and this -paired with the economic collapse and a loss of the youth vote - enabled Senator Obama to overtake Senator John McCain by a wide margin, turning a host of formerly "red" states into "blue" states.

First, to the makeup of the electorate. Senator McCain's nomination as the Republican Party's candidate for President is said by some to have been the only chance the GOP had for victory in 2008. Others in the Republican Party claim that Senator McCain's moderate stances on many policies may have hurt him with the Republican base. One of the biggest questions that will face pollsters breaking down this year's exit polling - of the 5 million Republican voters who turned out in 2004 but did not show up as Repubicans in 2008, how many stayed home versus those who voted but did not identify as Republican?

Republicans fell as a proportion of the electorate, something unsurprising given the massive registration efforts waged by the Obama campaign. In the end, Democrats only went from being 37% of the electorate to 39%. This wound up being an extra 3.6 million Democrat voters. But consider that in 2004, nearly 3.9 million more Democrats came out to vote than in 2000 (in part a product of the overall increased turnout that year). Yet the GOP dropped by 5 million voters in 2008 compared to 2004. On face, it looks like the Republican Party did a far better job of scaring away its own voters than the Democrats did creating new ones, sending many formerly Republican voters to the polls only to tell exit pollsters that they consider themselves to be "independents". Those independents broke 52-44 for Obama.

Some will say that we lost the election because McCain was unable to energize the base, despite his selection of Sarah Palin for Vice President. I disagree that a more conservative candidate would have fared better in the election. In fact, it isn't so much that the "base" sat home - for instance, in 2004, 23% of the electorate identified as "white evangelical/born-again Christian". In 2008, that jumped to 26% - larger than the jump in those identifying as 18-29 (18%, up from 17% in '04) or the jump in African-American turnout (13%, up from 11% in '08).

The base didn't sit home. They came out. Many Republicans just weren't calling themselves Republicans anymore, and many weren't voting like Republicans either. This speaks more to moderates and independents fleeing the GOP than a lack of turnout on the part of the base. Take a look here at my firm's website for two instructive charts that show the trends over time (the last 24 years - not the totality of political history to be sure - but the time frame since 2002 is particularly instructive).


McCain could have fought this election in the middle and perhaps stopped or at least stifled the exodus. Instead, the McCain campaign fought a traditional turn-out-the-base campaign - a tragic failure of strategy in a year where McCain's money and organization would barely be able to keep up with the Obama juggernaut. The way to win was to appeal to independents - something that it looked like might happen following the conventions, when some polls briefly showed a glimmer of hope that the maverick narrative would take hold. Instead, the campaign was fought on a battlefield where there was little way McCain could win short of a miracle.

The big change everyone was preparing to discuss after this election was the surge in youth and African-American turnout. This change was not at all as dramatic as many expected. Additionally, the Republican base doesn't appear to have stayed home in large numbers - in fact, they may have come out better than anticipated. The big shift in the makeup of the electorate came in the decreased percentage of the electorate identifying as Republican - something that requires a great deal of attention given the usual stability of party ID. Democrats only gained another 2% of the electorate, far less than many public polls had predicted or had shown in their own party ID breaks, but this election did show that while Party ID is still "sticky", it is also malleable as a variable in elections. The GOP needs to take action - and soon - to win those Independent voters back who have strayed if it wants to improve its electoral success any time soon.

Even more troubling for Republicans should be the youth vote this year - not in terms of higher turnout, but in terms of a very high level of support for Democratic candidates at the Presidential and House level. In 2004, young voters (18-29) broke for Kerry 54%-45% and voted for Democratic House candidates 55%-44%. In 2008, those margins swung dramatically toward the Democrats - 66% for Obama vs 32% for McCain and translating down to the House level at similarly troubling margins - 63% for Democrats vs. 34% for Republicans.

Scholars have noted that early adulthood plays a key role in the creation of political generations. In 1974, Beck described that young voters are primarily responsible for the birth of electoral realignment.(1) Billingsley and Tucker (1987) follow this analysis with the claim that political generations are often defined by political events occurring during young adulthood. (2) Indeed, the generation of voters in the 18-29 age group for the 2008 election were made up of those whose young adult political life would likely have included the events of September 11th as well as the expansion of political news availability via cable news and the Internet - not to mention the entire Bush Administration. The long term impact on the GOP of this swing will be felt for years to come in young voters are not appealed to with a positive, modern agenda that speaks to their concerns - the environment, energy, the economy, education, and entitlement reform. (Perhaps there's something with the letter "e"?)

So the electorate didn't look too much different than it did in 2004. But the likelihood that members of that electorate would call themselves a Republican or that they'd vote for Republicans was dramatically different.

The other factor that put the nail in the McCain campaign's coffin was the economy. Dr. Robert Shapiro (formerly of the Clinton administration) spoke with Johns Hopkins University graduate students before the election at a symposium event and reminded the attendees of a belief held by many social scientists - that more than slogans or advertising or anything the candidates themselves say or do, factors like the current president's job approval and the economy drive elections, and that when the economy is in a recession, it becomes incredibly difficult for the party in power to hold control. Indeed, there are no shortage of charts that highlight the massive divergence in polling numbers that happened right around the day Lehman Brothers shut its doors.

When the economy is the top issue for voters, it's best to have the confidence of those who are worried about it. Unfortunately for McCain, his forte is foreign policy - not the economy. Even more unfortunately, the Democrats quickly blamed the downturn on the sorts of economic policies associated with Republicans.. Being a Republican meant losing major footing on this issue, and as stocks went down, Obama's poll numbers went up.

On election day, McCain won the whopping 7% of Americans who said the economy was "excellent" or "good". However, the 93% who said the economy was "not so good" or "poor" broke for Obama 54%-44%. The 18% who didn't think the economic crisis would hurt their family broke for McCain; the 81% who were worried broke for Obama 62%-36%. Simply put, with economic turmoil gripping the nation, the McCain campaign needed to make a strong case for why he would be the best candidate on this issue. Given the results, it appears he was unable to accomplish this. And so went the election.

The Republican Party has two major challenges that jump from these numbers that must be tackled. First, the GOP must win back the youth vote. There's little reason to believe that this year was an aberration - that young voters came out for Obama but will fade away and become apathetic in years to come. However, barring major life events, young voters who leave a pattern of habitual non-voting by voting for the first time will be carried "inertia" to continue voting in future elections. As more and more young voters go to the polls, the norms surrounding voting among that age cohort will change the social costs of voting in a way that provides positive peer reinforcement, contributing to higher turnout. (3) Furthermore, the longer the GOP waits to try to win these voters back, the harder it will be - prior study has already established that as voters age, their partisan identification grows stronger. (4)

Second, the GOP must expand their "big tent" rather than contract. There is a great debate among many right now on the Right about whether or not the McCain candidacy represented stretching too far to reach to the middle, attempting to forge such a broad coalition that nobody wound up being happy with it. I would wholeheartedly disagree with the sentiment that we'd be better off focusing on the base; in fact if the concept of the Republican "base" is not expanded and in fact the tent of the Republican Party is pulled inward, this gap in partisanship will only increase in future years.

This election was preceded by much talk of a complete realignment, a massive wave of turnout from particular voter groups and a complete repudiation of the Republican Party. While this election may not have been realigning, it is a loud and clear wake up call for the GOP. Make no mistake - the data show a number of trends that ought to be very troubling for the Republican Party. The next two to four years will be crucial to making up deficits among young and independent voters. Without progress on these two fronts, we very well may be looking at the start of a very long, dark night for Republicans at the ballot box.

*Overall turnout figures compiled from CNN. As ballots from 2008 are still being counted, these numbers are obviously subject to vary.

1) Beck, Paul. (1974). A socialization theory of partisan realignments. In Richard Niemi and associates (eds.), The Politics of Future Citizens. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2) Billingsley, K., & Tucker, C. (1987). Generations, Status and Party Identification: A Theory of Operant Conditioning. Political Behavior, 9(4), 305-322
3)Plutzer, E. (2002). Becoming a habitual voter: inertia, resources, and growth in young adulthood. American Political Science Review, 96(1), pp 41-56.
4)Claggett, W. (1981). Partisan acquisition versus partisan identity: life-cycle, generation, and period effects, 1952-1976. American Journal of Political Science, 25(2), pp 193-214. and Campbell, A., Converse, P., Miller, W., and Stokes, D. (1960). The American voter. New York; Wiley.

Holm: Military Partisanship over the Bush Years

Topics: Military

Today's Guest Pollster contribution comes from Peter Holm, a Ph.D candidate in  Political Science at  the University of Wisconsin Madison. His research focuses on the military and political attitudes.

Last month, the Military Times newspapers released their quadrennial election survey showing that 68% of currently serving military respondents favored John McCain for president, as compared to only 23% for Barack Obama. Examining the results, Duke professor of political science Peter Feaver noted that "A lot of people thought that eight years of frustration with the Bush administration was going to undermine [the conservative Republican leanings of the military as an institution]. This evidence suggests that it hasn't undermined it as much as they thought, at least not yet."

In one respect, Feaver is clearly right: the military remains significantly more conservative and more Republican than the public generally. But let's take a closer look at the evidence to see whether there has actually been some moderation in military Republicanism over the course of the Bush administration.

Both Times reporter Brendan McGarry, in his piece reporting the poll results, and West Point professor Jason Dempsey, here on Pollster, explained that the Military Times survey cannot be regarded as representative of the military population as a whole. The papers' readers are whiter, older, more likely to be male, more senior in rank, and more highly educated, for example, than are the armed forces at large. Further, the survey (like all the Times' annual surveys) used non-random sampling of this already unrepresentative group, simply allowing any subscriber or former subscriber to respond to an emailed questionnaire. Among active-duty personnel, for example, junior enlisted soldiers (E-1 through E-4) comprise about 22% of the force, but only 6% of the Times 2008 election survey respondents came from the junior enlisted ranks. So how can we use these data to make inferences about political attitudes among the military generally?

One good way to do this is to look at trends over time, as Dempsey demonstrated. A second approach, which I use here, is to weight the military survey data to bring the sample into line with the demographic characteristics of the force as a whole. This is as simple as the weighting we see in most national opinion surveys every day. When the sample doesn't conform to the expected distribution of sexes, races, and ages among registered (or likely) voters, for example, most organizations use post-stratification or raking procedures to "weight up" the responses from underrepresented groups.

I constructed weights for the Times annual surveys of active-duty servicemembers going back to 2003 using race, sex, rank, age, education, and branch as raking variables. I used Department of Defense personnel data from 2005 to construct these weights, as full data on all the demographic variables I included are not available for each year individually. In any case, the demographic profile of the armed forces changes quite slowly; the biggest change over the past eight years has probably been the aging of the active force as recruitment and retention pressures have pushed the services to raise the age limits for entering and leaving the force. Unfortunately, the 2008 survey focused almost exclusively on McCain-Obama comparisons and did not ask respondents to identify with a party or place themselves on an ideological spectrum, so the data from that survey cannot be included here. (The 2008 annual survey, distinct from the election survey, will ask these questions, as annual surveys in previous years have.)

Presidential Approval and Party Identification

Let's look first at President Bush's approval ratings among active-duty servicemembers. Figure 1 shows that, in fact, Bush's support inside the military has declined significantly, while his disapproval rate has increased. In 2003, 62% approved of his job performance and 17% disapproved. In 2007, those numbers were 44% and 36%, respectively. The largest shift came during the year 2006, when civil violence in Iraq reached its peak and disapproval shot up from 22% to 39%.


Figure 1. Source: Military Times annual surveys, 2003-2007;
weighting done by the author using Department of Defense personnel data.

Has this dissatisfaction with the president translated into declining Republican identification among military personnel? Yes, but less strongly. As Figure 2 shows, the gap between Republican and Democratic identifiers closed significantly during the first two years of the second term - in fact, the Democratic deficit was more than cut in half from 37 to 16 points between 2004 and 2006. In 2007, though, this trend moderated. Republican identification rebounded and Democratic identification receded as violence in Iraq abated, the president appeared to have developed a more coherent and successful strategy for managing the conflict, and Republicans attacked congressional Democrats for wanting to "pull the rug out" from under the troops in their attempts to force a timetable for withdrawal into war funding bills. At the end of 2007, the weighted results found Republicans making up 44% of the military population, as compared to 17% calling themselves Democrats.


Figure 2. Source: Military Times annual surveys, 2003-2007;
weighting done by the author using Department of Defense personnel data

The Military Vote in 2008

How did these trends extend to military voting behavior in 2008? Let's consider two potential data sources. First, we can look at the Military Times 2008 election survey, weighted to correct for the demographic distortions in the subscriber base. Among active-duty respondents, the weighted results show a slightly closer contest than was originally reported: 60% favored McCain, 29% favored Obama, and 11% were undecided or favored someone else. Obama still trailed by a 2:1 ratio, but these same respondents reported that in 2004, they voted nearly 4:1 in favor of George Bush over John Kerry. Although the military vote almost certainly still favors Republicans for president, the gap has clearly narrowed.

It is important to note that the demographic weighting done here does not render the Military Times poll data fully representative of the active-duty population as a whole. It does make the sample demographically representative, at least along the dimensions I have included, but there is no way to tell with the data available what other factors may exist that are a) correlated with political attitudes; b) correlated with a person's propensity to subscribe to the Times newspapers or to respond to the survey; and c) that are not accounted for by the demographic characteristics included. It is the case, for example, that military donations reported to the FEC ran just about even between Obama and McCain, a result that suggests these survey findings, even after being weighted, may still underestimate Obama's support within the armed services. Of course, it could also indicate that Obama's supporters are simply more willing to give money but still constitute a distinct minority. We will have to await the results of better-designed surveys of the military population to find out.

In the meantime, one place to gauge how Obama actually did in relation to previous Democrats among military voters is in the election returns from military bastions around the country. I looked at returns in 29 of the 30 counties with the highest proportion of residents serving in the military as measured in the 2000 census. (Alaska does not report its returns by county, so one county is excluded from the analysis.) Figure 3 shows how Obama did in relation to Kerry's 2004 performance in these 29 counties, where the military percentage of the adult population ranges from 9.8% (in Hardin County, Kentucky) to 63.3% (in Chattahoochee County, Georgia).


Figure 3. Source: state election agencies and cnn.com.

The 45-degree line represents the divide between counties where Obama outperformed Kerry (in the upper left) and where he underperformed against Kerry (in the lower right). In all but one of the top 29 military counties, Obama's share of the two-party vote was higher than Kerry's, and by an average of over 6 points. Nationwide, Obama outperformed Kerry by 4.4 percentage points (Kerry received 48.8% of the two-party vote; Obama got 53.2%). This means that in the military bastions of the country, the counties most dominated by military personnel, Obama not only gained over Kerry's 2004 totals, but he improved on them in these areas even more than he did in the country as a whole. Although Obama still fell well shy of a majority in these counties (achieving 42.6% of the two-party vote, on average), the strong performance of a relatively young and inexperienced Democrat running against a decorated Republican war hero is highly suggestive that military allegiance to the Grand Old Party is on the wane.

GA: Chamblis 49, Martin 46 (DailyKos/Res2000 11/10-12)

Topics: PHome

DailyKos.com (D) / Research 2000
11/10-12/2008; 600 likely voters, MoE +/- 4%
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Sen: Chambliss (R-i) 49, Martin (D) 46

Chambliss: 54 favorable, 44 unfavorable
Martin: 55 favorable, 42 unfavorable

US: Obama, Campaign Satisfaction (Pew - 11/6-9)

Topics: PHome

Pew Research Center

11/6-9/08; 1,500 respondents who said they voted in the 2008 election for president  respondents (including 375 interviewed by cell phone); conducted among 2,599 registered voters previously interviewed 10/16-19/2008; margin of error +/- 3%

Mode: Live Telephone Interviews

(Report, Topline Questionnaire, Full PDF)

  • 75% of voters give Obama a letter grade of A or B for the way he conducted himself during the campaign (45% give Obama an A), "by far the highest grades for any winning candidate" in 20 years. 
  • 39% were very satisfied with the choice if candidates, also the highest level "after any election in the past 20 years." 

  • 67% believe Obama will have a successful first term. 

  • 36% say they got most of their news about the campaign from the Internet, up from 21% in 2004.

  • 58% give "the pollsters" a grade of A or B for the way they conducted themselves during the campaign, "their highest marks since the question was first asked in 1988."

US: Palin Favorable (CNN-11/6-9)

CNN / Opinion Research Corporation
11/6-9/08; 1,246 Adults, margin of error +/- 3%
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Favorable ratings:

Sarah Palin: 49% favorable, 43% unfavorable

Joe Biden: 64% favorable, 25% unfavorable

John McCain: 61% favorable, 36% unfavorable

(In addition to results released yesterday)

US: Obama, Bush Ratings (Quinnipiac-11/6-10)

Quinnipiac University Polling Institute
11/6-10/08; 2,210 Registered Voters, Margin of Error +/- 2.1%
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


23% approve of the way Bush is handling his job as President; 71% disapprove.

67% rate Barack Obama favorably, 19% unfavorably

62% think Obama will make a "great" or "good" president, 22% say he will be "so so" or "bad."

From the Quinnipiac release:

American voters believe President-elect Barack Obama when he says, "Yes we can," and say 70 - 11 percent that the economy will get better in Obama's first term, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today. Even 50 percent of Republicans say things will get better. Voters also say 56 - 28 percent that Obama will restore public trust in government, and believe 69 - 22 percent that his election will lead to improved race relations, the independent Quinnipiac  University poll finds.

Pollster Accuracy and the National Polls

Topics: Accuracy

It started not long after the sunrise last Wednesday morning. One reporter after another wanted to know: Which poll or pollster was most accurate? Which was worst? Votes were still being counted (they still are in some places), results still unofficial, and yet the rush to crown a pollster champion (and goat) was already in full swing.

I am going to write several posts on pollster accuracy -- this is just the first -- but I want to try to emphasize some common themes: First, leaping to conclusions about "accuracy" without considering random sampling is almost always misleading. Second, most of the pollsters came reasonably close to the final result in most places, so they tend to be bunched up in accuracy ratings and, as such, small differences in the way we choose to measure accuracy can produce different rankings. Third, I want to raise some questions about the polling industry's focus on the "last poll" as the ultimate measure of accuracy.

For today, let's start with something simple: It is foolish to focus on a single poll that "nailed" the result is given the random variation that is an inherent part of polling. Because most surveys involve random sampling (even internet panel surveys randomly sample from their pool of volunteers), they come with a degree of random variability built in, something we know of as the "margin of error." If we make the assumption that the final poll's "snapshot" of voter preferences comes close enough to the election to predict the outcome, then the best we should expect a poll to do is capture the actual result within its margin of error (although even then with caveat that the margin of error is usually based on a 95% level of statistical confidence, so 1 poll in 20 will likely produce a result outside that error margin by chance alone). So, if all polls are as accurate as they can be, the difference between "nailing" the result and being a few points off is a matter of random chance -- or luck.

If we are going to try to compare pollsters, the wisest thing to do is to measure accuracy across as many polls as possible, because the role of random chance will gradually diminish as the number of polls examined increases.

Unfortunately, that observation is not stopping a lot of reporters and observers from scanning the final national polls and trying to identify winners and losers. So before moving on to more elaborate aggregations, let's look at the list the final national poll conducted by 19 different organizations over the final week of the campaign. Looking first at the final survey results (as opposed to "projections" that allocated the undecided), we see that all of the polls had Obama leading by margins of 5 to 11 percentage points. A straight average of these surveys shows Obama leading by 7.6% (51.4% to 43.8% ).

081112 final polls

How did these polls compare to the actual results? First, let's keep in mind that provisional and late arriving mail-in ballots are still being counted in some places (and may not be reflected in the "99% of precincts counted" statistics typically provided by the Associated Press). The most current and complete national count I can find now shows Obama with a 6.6% lead in the national popular vote (52.7% to 46.1%). Obama's margin has increased by about a half a percentage point over the last week and (if the pattern in 2004 is a guide) may increase slightly more as secretaries of state release their final certified results.

Given that margin, however, just about every national poll can claim to have gotten the result "right" in some respect. Most captured either the individual candidate results or the margin within their reported margin of error (keeping in mind that the margin of error on the margin between two candidates is a little less than double the reported margin of error for each poll). Many that reported more in the undecided category, thus coming in low on individual candidate percentages, offered "projections" that allocated undecided. And remember, the 95% confidence level tells us that one of these polls should have fallen outside of the margin of error by chance alone.

Of course, if we are hell bent on crowning a champion, we still need to decide which accuracy measurement is best (do we compare the margins, how close the poll came to predicting the percentage for one or both of the candidates?) and in some cases, we would need to decide whether to focus on the survey results or the pollster's projection. For Battleground/GWU, for example, we have three sets of numbers: A final poll showing Obama with a 5-point lead and two projections (one from the Democratic and Republican pollsters involved) showing Obama with leads of 5 and 2 points respectively.

I am not devoting much effort here to calculating or charting the accuracy of the individual polls here because, again, random chance is such a big player in determining where each pollster ranks. I am working on another to follow soon, hopefully tomorrow, that will look at how pollsters did in statewide contests where we can aggregate accuracy calculations across multiple polls.

But before moving on from the national polls, let's look at this issue another way. What if we back up and look at the "snapshot" of polls as of Friday, October 31. After all, we have considerable evidence that virtually all minds were made up by the final week of the campaign. According to the national exit poll, only 7% of voters say they made their decision in the final three days (10% over the course of the final week). Although McCain did slightly better -- running roughly even with Obama -- among the late deciders, my colleague David Moore points out that those final decisions would have had little or no impact on the margins separating the candidate over the final week.

081112 through 1031

The overall performance is about the same. The average the results of the polls in this table, all of which concluded between October 26 and October 31, shows an average Obama lead of 7.1 points (51.4% to 43.0%) -- just slightly narrower than the 7.6% margin on the final round of national polling. What is different, however, is the spread of results. Where the final poll Obama margins varied from 5 to 11 points, just three days earlier the spread was from 3 to 15. The standard deviation (a measurement of the spread of results) was 1.8 on the Obama margin on the final polls, but 3.2 on the polls just a few days earlier.

I do not want to use this table to beat up on any individual pollster, especially since my October 31 cut-off is arbitrary and the field dates vary considerably (the Pew survey, for example started and ended earlier than most of the others). A slightly different cut-off date would have produced a different picture. Obama's 5 point margin on the IBD/TIPP 10/27-31 survey, for example, shrank to just 2 points the next day and then expanded back to 8 points on their final release.

We should remember that pollsters hold the details of their "likely voter models" close, habit that allows many to tinker with their selection and weighting procedures on their last poll. Gallup -- among the most transparent of pollsters in terms of describing their likely voter model -- disclosed a small adjustment in their model made just days before the election (although Gallup's Jeff Jones explained via email that the change did not explain Obama's growing margin over the last few days of their survey).

All of this brings me to the question we ought to keep front and center as we think about the accuracy of state level polls, where we are in a better position to quantify final poll accuracy. How many pollsters were tinkering or adjusting their models on that "last poll" with an eye toward the "final exam" coming on Election Day? And if the final poll results tended to converge around the average on the last round of polls, how much of that convergence was real and how much the result of last minute tinkering with LV models and weighting? And what does all of this say about focusing solely on "the last poll" to as a way to rate pollster accuracy? After all, just 19 of the 543 poll displayed on our national poll table were the "last poll." Which surveys had the biggest impact on campaign coverage?

White Vote for Obama in the States

There is considerable variation in the percentage of whites who voted for Obama. Where African Americans made up less than 20% of the vote (according to exit polls), whites varied from 30% to 60% in their support for Obama but with no relationship to the size of the African American vote. As the African American electorate rose above 20%, white support for Obama fell sharply to barely 10%.

African American support for Obama varied from 90% to 100% in the 28 states that had sufficient sample size to report exit results for the group. In the 13 states with large enough samples, Hispanic voters supported Obama between 56% and 78% of the time. 

NJ Column: Pollster Performance

Topics: National Journal

My NationalJournal.com column for the week, looking back on how the pollsters did, is now posted online.  We will have much more on pollster performance here over the next few days. 

US: Bush Approval et al (APGfK-11/6-10)

AP - GfK
11/6-10/08; 1,001 Adults, 3.1%
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


28% approve of the way Bush is handling his job as President; 67% disapprove.

21% approve of the way Congress is handling its job; 71% disapprove.


How confident are you that Barack Obama will be successful in bringing about the changes needed to improve the economy?

    72% Confident
    26% Not confident

How confident are you that Barack Obama will be able to implement the policy agenda he promised in his campaign?

    68% Confident
    31% Not confident

Why Obama Won

One week ago today Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States by taking advantage of the economic issues facing the country and outperforming John Kerry's 2004 vote share with key demographic groups. Forget all the nonsense that has been written about this being a revolutionary, web-based, text messaging, new generation campaign. Those things were certainly helpful, but their import has been exaggerated. Rather, the Obama team won this election the old fashioned way: they defined themselves and their opponent, they made few mistakes and they got out their vote.
Seven days gives us a bit of perspective on some of the often misguided and extreme ideas that have been bandied about in the last week. The following are some observations on these first impressions:

  • The Obama win was neither as big as some Democrats and members of the media have made it out to be nor as small as some of the GOP faithful would like to think. The problem is that the last two elections were fairly close, so Obama's win seems like a landslide...when in reality it was not. It was however, decisive. History is helpful here. Obama's popular vote percentage is approximately 52.6% as of today. This represents the first time a Democrat has reached the 50% mark since Carter in 1976 (50%), and the highest for a Democrat since Johnson in 1964 (61%). While it is a point and a half more than George W. Bush received in 2004, it is below George H. W. Bush in 1988 (53%) and far below Reagan in 1984 (59%) and Nixon in 1968 (61%). Reagan, Nixon and Johnson were blowouts; this was not.
    • The electoral vote victory was not a blowout either. Assuming Obama wins NE's 2nd Congressional district, he will finish with 365 electoral votes. This is far better than Bush received in 2004 (286) but below Clinton in 1996 (379) and far below Bush in 1988 (426), Reagan in 1984 (525), Reagan in 1980 (489), Nixon in 1972 (520) and Johnson in 1964 (486). Again, it was a strong electoral win for Obama but not a crushing defeat for the GOP.
  • The Obama campaign team was neither as brilliant as the news analysis articles have made them out to be nor was the McCain campaign team as inept as some stories have portrayed them. During the coming weeks, months and years, thousands of pages will be written about this election. It almost goes without saying that virtually every post-mortem will speak glowingly of the Obama effort (sometimes deservedly so) and disparagingly of the McCain campaign (ditto). However, winning campaigns always look like they were smarter than losing campaigns, whether it's true or not. Team McCain had several shining moments including the stretch in late August and early September when several ads (including the much discussed "Celebrity" ad) ran and had Obama playing defense. We are certain that these spots threw the Obama campaign off stride. However, the financial meltdown came and the 2008 electoral environment hugely favored the Democrats. Obama took advantage of that environment and ran a good, virtually mistake-free campaign (and make no mistake: this is rare). They should have won and they did.
Here is our take on what happened last Tuesday and how the results should be interpreted. This is based on an analysis of both the actual results and the exit polls.

First, let's look at the actual results. Obama won by flipping nine Bush 2004 states in three different regions of the country. He flipped three in the West (Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico), three in the Midwest/rust-belt (Iowa, Indiana and Ohio) and three in the mid-Atlantic/Southeast (Virginia, North Carolina and Florida). Demographic changes are part of the reason. All of these states have gotten younger, more urban and more diverse in the last ten years. Of course to flip those states the Obama campaign had to flip counties first. Some notable ones include Wake County (Raleigh) in NC (57% Obama), Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties in CO, Pinellas County in FL (54% Obama) and Loudoun County in VA. And of course Obama also expanded on Kerry's margins in hundreds of other key counties across the country.

Having said that, McCain still won 22 states and lost 5 others (totaling 86 electoral votes) by four points or less: Indiana (-1), Ohio (-4), Virginia (-4), North Carolina (-1) and Florida (-2). Of the states he won, 18 were by 8 points or more.

Second, let's take a quick look at turnout. According to Curtis Gans at American University, turnout was approximately 127 million - way below what was predicted. Perhaps the biggest underreported story of this election is that the reason turnout was essentially flat (up approximately 1-2 points from 2004) is that some of the evangelicals/GOP base stayed home and there was a corresponding increase in the black/youth vote. Some key data points to focus on are that self-described evangelical turnout was down three points. Conversely, the African American vote was up two points and 18-29 year olds were up approximately one point. This is, of course, imprecise because not all evangelicals vote Republican and not all blacks and youth vote Democratic, but if one goes down three points and the other two groups go up three points, the net is a six point change. It is not a coincidence that Obama won by about six points.

Third, let's take a look at the exit polls. We take the exit polls with a grain of salt but it is the best we have for understanding how segments of the electorate voted (and why). While it is true that McCain underperformed Bush among a number of different subgroups it is more instructive to focus on the groups where Obama over-performed John Kerry's numbers. The following stand out:

  • Men (+5)
  • Women (+5, and Obama beat McCain by 13 points)
  • Blacks (+5)
  • Latinos (+14, and Obama beat McCain by 36 points)
  • Asians (+6)
  • Whites (+2)
  • All income groups (+5 to +8)
  • Independents (+3)
  • Conservatives (+5, this represented a 20% defection of conservatives to the Democratic candidate compared to 15% in 2004)
  • All religious groups (+4 to +8)
  • Married and unmarried voters (+5)

The fact is that the Obama victory was pervasive and cut across almost all demographic subgroups. However, there are some prominent groups that warrant examination. A glance at the below chart comparing the 2004 results by race with those same results from 2008 shows how the Obama victory was a balance of winning more white voters than John Kerry and doing substantially better with African Americans and Hispanics.

exit poll race.png

Given the demographic trends in the country, the GOP is unlikely to win any future Presidential elections if it is losing 95% of the black vote and 67% of the Hispanic vote

It is also worth noting that Obama did something unique in this election by winning men. There has been a structural gender gap in place since the early 1980's, when men gravitated to the GOP primarily because of Reagan and never left (until now, at least temporarily). Women tend to find the GOP less appealing - driven largely by GOP positions on education, health care and the environment - and tend to have more allegiance to the Democrats. People always talk about the gender gap in terms of women preferring Democrats, but it is really more about men and the GOP. Note that in 2004 John Kerry beat Bush among women by three points but it was the Bush win among men (nine points) that was stunning. In essence, Obama flipped men in this election, winning them by one point; that, combined with his overwhelming lead with women, helped him secure the Presidency.

exit poll gender.png

The following is our assessment of the 2008 campaign with an eye to why Obama won:

  1. It was simply the right time. This election took place during a financial meltdown and one of the longest sustained periods of voter dissatisfaction ("wrong track" at 85%, the President's approval at 27%) in modern history. For McCain, this was not the right time to be running for the third term of the incumbent party.
  2. Obama had a singular, consistent theme from day one and he ran on it for two years: "Change." He was in the right place at the right time. One of those times in history when the person and the idea are in alignment with the attitudes of the country. Obama was about change - and what that meant was never ambiguous. It was the opposite of George W. Bush and the Republicans. It was clear and simple...and that is how you win elections.
  3. By contrast, John McCain never settled on an agenda-setting national theme or message. Go ahead, ask yourself what McCain stood for. Sure, during the last week it was for cutting taxes and in opposition to a socialist governing philosophy (this was the only period over the final two months that the McCain campaign exhibited air-tight message discipline). But before that they ran through a dozen campaign themes. In fact, at times it seemed that the candidate himself evolved during the campaign. There was McCain the fighter, the "surge" McCain, McCain the reformer, McCain the maverick, McCain the earmark guy. Yes, by virtue of the position they were in (i.e. the hostile environment and running behind in the polls) they had to try some different things to break through, but that is not an excuse for failing to settle on a campaign narrative in April and sticking to it. There was never a consistent theme and they paid the price for it.
  4. The ultimate irony is that Obama defined McCain rather than the other way around. We all thought it was the Republican who would define Obama. But the Obama campaign defined McCain as "erratic" and "confused" at various points during the campaign. Of course, McCain contributed to this impression by suspending his campaign during the financial crisis/bailout negotiations and seeking to cancel the debate (and then failing to negotiate a deal and attending the debate). Once the word "erratic" entered the public lexicon the media latched on to it. Whether it was Obama focus group research that unearthed it or not is moot: the Obama campaign discovered that the impression of McCain as "erratic" stuck and that was all they needed.
  5. Without Hillary Clinton, there probably would not be a President Obama. The primary battle with Hillary Clinton helped Obama in three specific ways: it vetted (and probably took of the table) the biggest political skeleton in his closet, it gave him a chance to blunder and learn from it and, finally, it made him and his campaign better.
    1. Jeremiah Wright. It was hugely helpful for Obama that the Wright tape was released in the spring of last year. It was a big political issue and his numbers went down. His denouncement of Wright and his major speech on race was a defining moment in the primary campaign. It also, to some extent, took the issue off the table for Republicans in the fall because to raise the issue - without the newsworthiness - may have seemed racist (or desperate). Certainly one can argue whether McCain could have engaged on the issue given the state of the economy, but the best thing for Obama was when it happened. It took the surprise out of it and inoculated him against its future use.
    2. Bitter-gate. Obama's comments in early April 2007 at a San Francisco fundraiser were a major tactical error and halted much of his momentum at that point. Again, the campaign team was able to right the ship and the candidate learned from the mistake. From that point forward his performance on the campaign trail was nearly flawless.
    3. Preparation. The primary battle with Clinton honed the Obama message and campaign apparatus and emboldened the Obama team to stick to their campaign strategy. The fight with Clinton did not weaken them, it made them stronger.
  6. Palin did not make a difference one way or another. The Palin pick was purely tactical and not based on any specific strategy. Sometimes a good tactic can have a short-term benefit but little long term effect. Such was the Palin choice. She energized the base and became a fundraising generator but the choice diffused the McCain argument that Obama was unprepared for the Presidency. Our sense is that Palin was a net positive because of her impact on GOP fundraising and its volunteer apparatus. For those who say that she took away the experience argument - and we agree-- we are doubtful that this election would have turned on "experience." Otherwise, the Newsweek and Time magazine covers this week would have Hillary Clinton's picture on them.
  7. Obama won the middle. Elections are about 50.1%; it is about putting together a minimum winning coalition. Obama's coalition was clear: win almost all the black vote and two-thirds of Hispanics, win young voters 2 to 1 and hold down your losses with white voters to less than 15 points (it was -12 points, but far better than Kerry in 2004, who lost white voters by 17 points). They put enough pieces of their coalition together to get to 50.1%...and then some.
  8. McCain had three shots to change the trajectory of this election and he failed in two out of the three. Presidential candidates who are behind in the polls really have only a few chances to get a game-changer: the selection of the running-mate, the convention speech and the debates. The selection of Sarah Palin gave McCain a short-term bump and a temporary lead. While her interview performances caused a drop in her favorability, it was the financial crisis that drove down the McCain vote in mid-September. McCain's speech at the convention was neither memorable nor persuasive. Finally, as we have said before, Obama flat out won the debates on both style and content. Obama's debate performances (especially in the first debate) allowed him to cross the acceptability threshold for many voters.
  9. Obama won the big moments. Perhaps the biggest moment of all was the financial bailout debate. The financial crisis created a Presidential moment for the candidates and Obama appeared sober, thoughtful and smart. His behavior during this period seemed presidential. On the other hand, McCain's suspension of his campaign, his dash to Washington and his failure to get Congressional action was a major campaign blunder and, more importantly, cemented the notion that McCain was "erratic."
  10. Obama had a lot more money and used it. The decision by the Obama team to go outside of the public-financing system may have been a no-brainer but it was also the single most important one the campaign made. According to the Center for Responsible Politics, through October 15th John McCain raised $360 million (including $84 million in federal funds) and spent $239 million while Barack Obama raised a staggering $639 million and spent $537 million. President-elect Obama raised and spent 75% more money than Senator McCain.

    Financial data on the political parties for the entire election cycle is available. The Democrat Party raised $749 million and spent $669 million, while the Republican Party raised $720 million and spent $619 million. While it is unknown precisely how much of that money was spent assisting the presidential candidates, it is clear that Obama and the Democrats possessed a tremendous financial edge and, given the minimal political fallout, Obama's decision to forego public financing was prescient.

    This forced McCain to put money and personnel into previously solid GOP states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. In October, Obama was up on the air with 3,500 rating points a week (according to an Obama campaign official). This means the average voter saw an Obama ad approximately 35 times a week (and that doesn't include what the DNC was doing). The GOP was able to come close to that spend level in the campaign's last two weeks but was still probably outspent 2 to 1 in key states. Obama was running 2,000 points a week in Montana and, although they narrowly lost the state, it forced McCain to spend resources in a state where he shouldn't have needed to.

  11. McCain's defense of the economy was the beginning of the end. We said it back then: the campaign turned on a single turn of phrase. When McCain said that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" it told voters that he was out of touch. Obama pounced and McCain's vote share dropped.

  12. McCain's support of the bailout was the end of the end. This is not an indictment of the policy decision, but rather the political effect. When McCain announced his support for the bailout it robbed him of any chance to differentiate himself from Obama.

  13. The battlefield favored Obama overwhelmingly. However, if the issue landscape had been foreign policy and terrorism instead of the economy, McCain could have won. The economy was overwhelmingly the most important issue to voters but if this election had been fought on different terrain the results might have been different. Among those worried about terrorism McCain was almost even, losing by only 2 points.

exit poll terrorism2.png

US: Obama Favorable et al (Hotline-11/6-9)

Diageo / Hotline
11/6-9/08; 800 RV, 3.5%
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Favorable / Unfavorable
Obama: 65 / 28
McCain: 58 / 38
Pelosi: 31 / 40
Reid: 12 / 22

Also: 29% approve of the way Bush has been handling his job as President; 65% disapprove.

PA-Sen: Specter vs Matthews (PPP-10/31-11/2)

Public Policy Polling (D)
10/31-11/2/08; 1,529 LV, 2.5%
Mode: IVR

2010 Sen: Arlen Specter (R-i) 40, MSNBC host Chris Matthews (D) 27

US: Obama Favorable et al (USAToday-11/7-9)

USA Today / Gallup
11/7-9/08; 1,010 Adults, 3%
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews
(blog, story)


Favorable Ratings
Obama - 68%
McCain - 64%
Biden - 59%
Palin - 48%
Pelosi - 42%
Reid - 27%

Also: 68% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as President.

US: Bush Approval et al (CNN-11/6-9)

11/6-9/08; 1,246 Adults, 3%
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Do you think the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration will be relatively easy and free from tension between Bush aides and Obama aides, or relatively difficult with a lot of tension between Bush aides and Obama aides?

    57% Relatively easy
    39% Relatively difficult

    63% Relatively easy
    34% Relatively difficult

    48% Relatively easy
    47% Relatively difficult

Also: 76% disapprove of how Bush is handling his job as President, "an all-time high in CNN polling and in Gallup polling dating back to World War II."

Favorable / Unfavorable
Pelosi: 40 / 39
Reid: 26 / 24
Democratic Party: 62 / 31
Republican Party: 38 / 54

Demographic Groups and Votes, 2008

A first look at how groups lined up in the presidential election.  Almost all groups shifted in a Democratic direction. In that sense the Obama win as very much "across the board".  The exceptions: Small towns, late deciders and (interestingly) gays. Gay support was still highly pro-Democratic, just not has high as it was in 2004. (Exit polls found 4% self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual and the vote split was 70-27 for Obama.)

There were few significant shifts in the relative ordering of group support, which is some evidence that no substantial restructuring of electoral alignments. If such a restructuring is to occur, it will be during the next four years, not from Tuesday's voting patterns.
For easy legibility, here is an ordering of groups based on 2008 margin:
And here are groups sorted by amount of change in the group's vote margin from 2004 to 2008: