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How Do Polls and Exit Polls Handle Early Voting?

Topics: Early Voting , Exit Polls , Likely Voters

The most common questions I have been getting via email the last two weeks are about early voting. Specifically, how are pollsters dealing with early voting on the pre-election polls we report and how will exit pollsters deal with the early and absentee voters that do not show up at polling places on Election Day?

The answer to the first question is that just about every pollster is either modifying their screen questions or asking additional questions to allow and attempt to identify early voters. Here is a sampling of how some of the national pollsters ask about early voting.

  • CBS News/New York Times: How likely is it that you will vote in the 2008 election for President this November - would you say you will definitely vote, probably vote, probably not vote, or definitely not vote in the election for President, or have you already voted?
  • Fox News/Opinion Dynamics: When do you plan to vote in the presidential election -- did you already vote, do you plan to vote early -- meaning sometime before Election Day, or will  you vote on Election Day?
  • Gallup/USA Today: Which of the following applies to you - you have already voted in this year's election, either by absentee ballot or early voting opportunities in your state, you plan to vote before Election Day, either by absentee ballot or early voting opportunities in your state, or you plan to vote on Election Day itself?
  • GWU/Battleground: What is the likelihood of your voting in the elections to be held in November -- are you extremely likely, very likely, somewhat likely, or not very likely at all to vote? (Accepts "already voted" as a volunteered response).
  • Pew Research Center: Do you plan to vote in the presidential election, have you ALREADY voted, or don't you plan to vote?

While verbatim questionnaires are harder to come by for state level polling, the questions are presumably similar. It is worth keeping in mind that, as with self-reported measure of voting, these questions may overstate the degree of early voting as some respondents will claim to have voted when they have not.

But key point that some seem to miss: None of the pre-election polls (or at least none that I know of) are excluding early voters from their samples. The totals reported include both early voters and those still considered "likely" to vote next week, so no, we do not have to try to somehow account for early voting in interpreting the poll numbers posted and estimated on Pollster.com or other poll aggregation sites.

What about the exit polls? The exit pollsters have, for several elections conducted telephone surveys the week before the election among those who have already voted in states with a rate of early voting they consider significant enough to affect the results. On election night, they combine the early voting telephone survey results with interviews conducted at polling places (except for Oregon, where all voters cast ballots by mail). In 2004 , they did telephone surveys of early voters in 12 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and nationally (for their national exit poll).

A few days ago, Kate Phillips of the New York Times reported these helpful details on this year's plans, which will apparently include six more states:

Joe Lenski, the executive vice president of Edison Media Research, which along with Mitofsky International, conducts the exit polls for a consortium of news organizations, said the group has already expanded its plans for telephone surveys of early voters to 18 this year from a dozen states in 2004. The states are selected based on their competitiveness in the election and on their high rates of voters who cast ballots before Election Day.

[...]

Beginning this week through the weekend, Edison/Mitofsky will conduct random phone surveys in those 18 states, asking detailed questions of people who actually say they voted early. Mr. Lenski wouldn't release the list of all 18 states, but it's pretty apparent that California, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and New Mexico will be among the targets.

We're told that Pennsylvania and Virginia - still considered battleground states - won't be among those surveyed before Election Day because those states' rates of early voting/absentee voting are traditionally lower than others.

One caveat: This survey is conducted among landline telephone users only, despite pollsters' growing practice of capturing cellphone users as well. Mr. Lenski and others asserted that shouldn't make much of a difference, because recent research indicates that there aren't huge differences on issues between landline and cellphone respondents. But the Pew Research Center has detected a slight difference when it comes to horse-race figures, suggesting that cellphone surveys capture more younger voters who heavily favor Senator Barack Obama. On Election Day, exit poll interviews will include questions about cells.

It is probably worth adding that exit poll interviews are just one component of the data that the networks use to estimate the election result and (ultimately) weight the exit poll tabulations we will see on Election Night. They will be looking at samples of actual returns very shortly after the polls close. Some states will make separate tabulations of early voting available immediately. Needless to say, the "decision desk" analysts will consider the potential impact of early voting in their projections.

Phillips' article has much more on the early voting phenomenon. It's worth reading in full.

[An earlier version of this post mangled the Fox News early vote questions -- apologies for the error].

 

Comments

Clearly, the large number of early voters will have all of us reconsidering how we look at future elections. Along these lines, most of us are trying to figure if we can tell who will win which states based on the early voting. The following is an interesting piece from the Washington Post online which says that the early voting in Nevada may already mean that Obama has essentially won that state unless something dramatic happens very soon:

Early Voting Update: Nevada Voting Suggests Obama Victory at Hand

Jonathan Weisman reports on the presidential race.

Today is the final day of early voting in the key swing state of Nevada, and the question must be asked, has Barack Obama already won there?

As of late Thursday night, registered Democrats had cast 225,670 of the 438,129 ballots (51.5%) in the two most populous counties, Las Vegas’s Clark County and Reno’s Washoe. Republicans cast 31.3% with the remainder cast by Independents.

Those two counties account for about 90% of the state’s turnout. Early voting is expected to make up 60% of the Silver State’s 2008 ballots, and with a 20-point margin already banked, assuming most of the registered Democrats voted for Obama, the party goes into Election Day with a big cushion.

Andres Ramirez, vice president of Hispanic programs at NDN, a Democratic organization, says John McCain will need to nab between 75% to 80% of the Independent vote, a tall order given that Nevada polling shows nothing like that level of support. He also would need about 12% to 15% of the Democratic vote, perhaps an easier prospect.

With only five electoral votes, Nevada cannot be seen as pivotal, but it may be a bellwether in the West, particularly for Colorado with its nine electoral votes and New Mexico with its five.

Permalink | Trackback URL: http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/10/31/early-voting-suggests-nevada-victory-at-hand-for-obama/trackback/

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s.b.:

You know all this talk about cell phones seems odd given that Obama consistently underperformed polls in the primaries unless it was a state with a predominent black population magnified in the Democratic party, and I don't think that had to do with cell phones. Even talk of a Wilder effect is odd. We know there is an Obama effect in the polls from the primaries. The spread will be tighter than polled and Obama will not perform as well as the polls if the primary Obama effect is still in play, and i would assume it is.

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s.b.:

Obama also consistently underperformed exit polls in the primaries. If exit polls say Obama is ahead by 2-4%, chances are McCain wins.

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Ray Lewis:

Do those early voting numbers take into account absentee ballots, which I understand traditionally skew towards Republicans rather heavily?

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RS:

@s.b.:
Data please. I have a few results to disprove your claim that Obama underperformed polls unless there was a large Black population:
NH (yes!): Pollster/Obama 36.7%; actual 37%
AZ: Pollster/Obama 36.7%; actual 43%
PA: Pollster/Obama 42.4%; actual 45%

So please... show us the data to back up your claims. Or stop trotting out that tired old trope.

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Nick Panagakis:


I am surprised how often the media mentions early voting as a polling problem. Right up there with cell phones.

Once early voting begins it's such an easy fix as can seen above. In our case, the voting likelihood scale question "absolutely certain to vote" etc is modified after early voting begins by adding "If you already voted just say so".

Those who already voted get a modified voting question, not "for whom would you vote" but "for whom did you vote".

In illinois, new to early voting, in the 4th, 5th, and 6th day of of a 21 day early voting period, we got 6% voted already. Based on news accounts of early voting here, that should be on the money.

Nick


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xcurmudgeon:

I have collected on my blog the results from more than 60 polls--national and state--that have reported a separate breakdown of early voters. These are, in essence, exit polls of early voters.

The results are quite interesting, especially in states, such as Colorado, where more than half the voters may already have voted.

As a general rule, Obama is leading in early voting across the board.

For complete results (updated daily) go to:
http://xcurmudgeon.blogspot.com/2008/10/early-voting-exit-polls-and-demographic.html

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sulthernao:

s.b.

Obama consistently overpolled, not underpolled. (Yes, in predominately AA states, but also others).

Look at WI, IA, MO, IN, CO, CT, DE, MN, NM, WA, CA (he actually won on the actual election day, but got destroyed by early voting), and ALL of the southern states/states with high black populations.

Obama, did however underperform on early exit polling that was leaked by Drudge. I suggest you take the ones released at 4:00 p.m. with a grain of salt.

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billreef:

I am flabbergasted to hear that the exit pollers will not be utilizing cell phone data in their sample. Time for their clients to get out the stick. Even if it is marginally signifigant now does anyone think that it is not an increasing occurence. No land line/only cell phone.

Of course after witnessing 5 hour waits in line for early voting here in Florida nothing amzes me anymore. We are teetering on the brink of having a third world government folks. They can't find their tuckus with both hands. I mean FL of all places, you would think after the laughingstock we have become over the last 8 years with regard to elections, someone might have wanted to fix it by now!!!

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billreef:

I am flabbergasted to hear that the exit pollers will not be utilizing cell phone data in their sample. Time for their clients to get out the stick. Even if it is marginally signifigant now does anyone think that it is not an increasing occurence. No land line/only cell phone.

Of course after witnessing 5 hour waits in line for early voting here in Florida nothing amzes me anymore. We are teetering on the brink of having a third world government folks. They can't find their tuckus with both hands. I mean FL of all places, you would think after the laughingstock we have become over the last 8 years with regard to elections, someone might have wanted to fix it by now!!!

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