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Do Attentive Voters Prefer Different Candidates?

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

Earlier today, the Pew Research Center released results from their latest national survey, which provides must read analysis on the state of perceptions of the 2008 race for president. However, an "outtake" cross-tabulation from that report sheds some new light on whether the loose screens used by national polls to report national presidential primary preferences may be distorting the results. Consider, for example, the turnout in next year's Democratic primaries and caucuses is unlikely to amount to more than 10% of the adult population, yet most national surveys report on the preferences of the 35% to 55% of adults (or of registered voters) that identify or lean to the Democrats. The key question we have been asking is whether that discrepancy makes a difference in the results?

The Pew survey has two helpful characteristics in this regard. First, they have asked the same vote and demographic questions on their last two surveys, allowing larger than usual sub-samples of Democratic (n=1,188) and Republican (n=1,059) identifiers or "leaners" that are registered to vote. Second, both surveys include a question generally considered predictive of voter turnout:

How much thought, if any, have you given to candidates who may be running for president in 2008, a lot, some, not much or none at all?

I emailed the analysts at the Pew Research Center and they shared the following table, something apparently prepared for their report but cut from the final draft:

04-26%20pew%20thought%20given.png

Two findings stand out: Among Democrats, Barack Obama gets a higher percent of the vote (27%) among those paying a lot of attention or paying some attention (28%) than among those paying little or no attention (19%). Similarly, Rudy Giuliani gets a higher percentage of the vote (36%) among Republicans paying a lot of attention or some attention (34%) than among those paying little or no attention (28%). Conversely but not surprisingly, in both cases, those paying the least attention are also the most likely to tell pollsters they are undecided.

So what do these results say about Chris Bowers' theory that national polls are overstating Hillary Clinton's lead? The evidence here is mixed, at best. Obama certainly does better among more attentive voters, although that finding is not particularly surprising given his rapidly growing name recognition in recent months. However, Clinton also does better among the most attentive Democrats. Thus, her margin over Obama among those who pay "a lot" of attention (11 points in the combined March/April data) is actually a few statistically insignificant points higher than her margin among all Democrats (9 points in March, 10 points in April).

Now, some cautions about the above. First, those who say they pay a lot of attention to the candidates are more likely to vote than those who do not, but this measure is far from a perfect turnout predictor. Pollsters that use attentiveness to select likely voters usually do so in combination with other measures, such as reports of past voting or future likelihood to vote. Second, an interesting twist: Among Democrats, Al Gore does better among the least attentive (17%) than among the most attentive (10%). Reallocating Gore's vote using Pew's second choice question might change these numbers slightly, but probably not dramatically.

Meanwhile, over at MyDD, Chris Bowers looks at the Pew results showing Clinton running better among Democratic identifiers than among independents who lean that way, and he sees an "an important structural flaw" in his theory:

I still believe that Obama probably does much better relative to Clinton among voters who are paying very close, or somewhat close, attention to the campaign than among voters who are not paying much attention at all. However, closed primaries in several large February 5th states might cancel out that advantage, since Obama performs relatively better among Democratic-leaning independents who won't be able to vote in closed primaries than he does among self-identified Democrats (in this case, I am assuming self-identified Democrats are more likely to be registered Democrats than are Democratic-leaning independents).

Note that several other surveys have confirmed that Clinton's margin is narrower among independent leaning Democrats.

 

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