Articles and Analysis


How Many Women?

Topics: Likely Voters , Sampling

Two recent polls provide case studies in how pollsters determine the demographics of "likely voters," especially the gender breakdown. The answer is not as simple as you might imagine, although when it comes to gender, some public pollsters show a surprising reluctance to adjust likely voter samples that produce highly implausible percentages of women.

Most of us understand that polls aim to capture a snapshot of attitudes at the moment they are taken, "as if the election were held today." On that much, most pollsters agree. But my pollster colleagues tend to disagree about how much they are willing to assume about who will vote. Media pollsters generally prefer to use procedures that select "likely voters" based on the respondent reports of their likelihood to vote, past voting behavior and interest in the campaign, while allowing the demographics of the resulting likely voter sub-sample to vary from poll to poll. Internal campaign pollsters are more willing to make estimates of some of the demographics of likely voters and adjust their samples accordingly to keep the demographic composition reasonably consistent.

Given that background, consider our first case study, a recent survey of Michigan voters conducted by EPIC/MRA for the Detroit News and several local television stations. The survey gave Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm an eight-point lead over Republican challenger Dick DeVos (50% to 42%), but also reported a gender composition of 57% female. Some Republicans cried foul, so the National Journal's Hotline (subscription only) contacted EPIC/MRA pollster Ed Sarpolous for comment:

The poll is a great example of the science of weighting polls, says EPIC/MRA's Ed Sarpolous. He explains that, when conducting a poll for a media client, the client has two options: They can take a snapshot of the race as it stands at that moment in time, or they can choose to guess what the electorate will do come Election Day. The difference is all in how the pollster weights the polls.

Here I have to stop. In my experience, pollsters rarely try to "guess what the electorate will do," although we may sometimes make an educated guess about who the electorate will be as described above. It is puzzling that Sarpolous would describe his weighting procedure in these terms, although the specifics of the rest of his explanation have much more to do with the demographic composition of his sample than its vote preference.  The Hotline report continues:

The survey Sarpolous conducted, though, was unweighted. The [unweighted] "snapshot," as he calls it, allows his clients to take a look at the state of the race today. In this case, he says, men -- especially Republican men -- weren't making it through his screens of likely voters. That is, they were telling his interviewers that they were unlikely to vote. That made the unweighted sample of likely voters overwhelmingly female.

Sarpolous says his clients had to answer a question when deciding how to weight their poll -- or leave it alone: "Are you looking to write a story about what's happening today, or what's going to happen in 55 days?"

Two things are odd about this explanation. The first is that most media pollsters begin with a sample of all adults, and weight the adult sample that to match the highly reliable demographic estimates from the U.S. Census. They then select a pool of registered or likely voters from the larger adult sample, allowing the demographics of the sub-sample to vary.** It would be very unusual if the EPIC/MRA survey did no demographic weighting at all, but it is unclear from the explanation above. 

Second, while estimating the composition of voters in terms of age or race can be difficult, we do have reasonably consistent estimates of gender. One such estimate comes from the Current Population Survey (CPS) of the U.S. Census. The CPS is also a survey, of course, and their voter estimates are based on self-reported voting behavior. However, the CPS is based on a very large initial sample (60,000+ households nationally each month) with a very high response rate (90%+). The following table shows the CPS estimates by state for 1998 and 2002 (kindly provided by Professor Michael McDonald of George Mason University, who has been analyzing CPS estimates of voter demographics for an upcoming journal article):


A note of caution: The CPS voter sample sizes in many states are well under 1,000, and as such, the estimates no doubt include much random variation due to sampling error. However, even with the variation, CPS reported very few states with a gender composition of 57% or higher in either year (the District of Columbia and Delaware in 2002, D.C. and Mississippi in 1998). The higher percentage of women in places like DC and Mississippi owes to a greater percentage of African American voters. CPS has shown a large and persistent gender gap in turnout among African Americans (see the report on differences in turnout by race in the 2002 CPS, Table B).

Michigan had a larger sample size in both years (n=1,437 in 2002). The gender percentage there was reasonably consistent -- 53.0% in 1998, 53.4% in 2002. The CPS is not the only source. A pollster might also consider the results of past exit polls and the gender statistics available from the lists of past voters. Except for urban areas and states like Mississippi, the gender composition of voters rarely deviates more than a percentage point or two from 52-53% female. Speaking from personal experience, most campaign pollsters would weight "likely voter" data for that state to 53% female. 

The Hotline story went on to say that after "the public outcry," Sarpolous went back and weighted his results by gender to reflect a close balance of men and women.

As it turns out, men were nearly as likely as women to favor DeVos and, when weighted evenly to predict Election Day turnout, the results ended up the same.

That may be, though I am still puzzled why the pollster would not have conducted this sort of analysis before releasing the initial results.

The gender composition of our second case study was probably more consequential. A survey of Indiana's 8th Congressional District conducted recently for the Evansville Courier & Press by Indiana State University that showed Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth leading incumbent Republican John Hostettler by a surprising 15 point margin (47.4% to 31.8%). The Courier & Press reported that 63.5% of the 603 interviews conducted among registered voters were women. Most campaign pollsters would probably agree with the assessment of Republican pollster Bill Cullo, who called the gender mix "unprecedented" yesterday on Crosstabs.org.

Another recent automated survey on Indiana-08 conducted by the Majority Watch project (RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics) weighted their results to 48% male, 52% female. They also showed a significant gender gap in voter preferences. Their survey had Hostettler leading by 14 points among men (56% to 42%) but trailing by a whopping 24 points among women (36% to 60%).

What were the results of Courier & Press survey by gender? The initial poll story includes no tabulations by gender. However, given the high proportion of women in their sample, they owe their readers some indication of how this very unusual result may have affected the results.

UPDATE: A follow-up article from the Courier & Press explains that their survey showed little difference in voter prefernence by gender. See my subsequent post for details.

**CLARIFICATION: In using the word "pool" above I did not mean to imply that the process of selecting registered for likely voters involves a second round of random sampling.  Pollsters simply select the subgroup of interest (self identified registered voters, or voters that they classify as "likely") from the larger sample.  The process is analogous to selecting any other subgroup (women, 18-30 year olds, union members, etc.).  

Weighting or adjusting a sample of all adults by demographics like gender and age is not controversial among media and political pollsters, because, as I wrote above, we can base those adjustments on highly reliable U.S. Census estimates of the adult population.  The practice of seperately weighting the subgroup of registered or likely voters is more controversial, because the demographics of those populations vary slightly from election to election, and estimates are less reliable. 

Finally, the Courier & Press survey was conducted by the Sociology Research Lab at Indiana State University. The original version of this post identified it incorrectly as Indiana University.



To add a small amount of grist to the mill, consider that overall CPS percent women among 2004 voters was 53.5%, up from 52.8% in 2002.

While 57% in Michigan does seem high, also consider that South Carolina reported women constituted 56.5% of the state's voters (compared to 54.6% from the CPS). So, it is not entirely implausible that women could constitute 57% of Michigan's 2006 electorate, given that the highest profile race in the state will involve an incumbent woman.



I have to laugh when that Republican pollster calls the unfavorable Republican results "unprecedented". Well, maybe that's because the Democratic wave that's coming in November will be unprecedented. Wonder if he ever thought of that? Besides, everyone's been saying GOP voter intensity is down this year. That would translate directly to a higher proportion of women voters, since most GOP voters are men.


Nick Panagakis:

First, Ed Sarpolus has a good record in his home state, Michigan.

One of the first things you learn in phone research - whether it's public opinion research, marketing research or poltitical polls - is this: Women answer the phone at home more often than men for a varierty of reasins.

So the first question is: Was there any *within* household selection?

Or, for example, asking for youngest male because experience shows they are the hardest to reach.

(The data shown by state above are from CPS's biennial Voter ad Registration survey conducted after every presidential and off-year election. More women vote because in Census 10-year ennumerations and total populatio sample surveys, there *are* more adult women than men.)

My preference is area stratification with gender composition within strata based on data shown above. Gender distributions barely deviate across Census surveys as is evident above. The Census' post-election surveys are subject to sample error by state. I've noticed this on race estimates in Illinois.

Nick Panagakis


Gary Kilbride:

I've noticed a lesser percentage of women among the undecideds this year, if you sample crosstabs. Normally women are the majority of the undecideds but this year that is often reversed.

I think that's partially responsible for the poll leads that Democrats enjoy, a segment of the security moms firmly back in the blue camp. But I think it also means Democrats may not do as well among the undecideds as they expect. Those undecideds could be men who normally are soft supporters of the GOP but have been disillusioned the past two years. If so, I would guess they won't break sharply either way.

BTW, you are missing a Mason-Dixon poll on the Nevada senate race, released Tuesday: Ensign 58, Carter 35. Amazing that Mason-Dixon consistently polls that gap at 20+ while Rasmussen has it half or less. As a Nevadan my estimate has always been 12-15 and I'll stick to that.

And notice the goofy relationship between the Nevada senate and gov races. Rasmussen has Titus trailing by 14 and Carter by 9. Meanwhile, Mason-Dixon lists Titus down by 9 and Carter by 23. I can tell you the latter relationship -- Titus closer -- makes infinitely more sense. To the point I would wager huge bucks on it.


Lena :

Im doing a debate in school, the proposition is: Women are just as qualified as men to hold high office postitions such as governer,senator and president. If anyone can help with websites or commnets i would appreciate it. My email is missbiddybee@yahoo.com


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