One outcome is certain tomorrow – the pollsters will finish last.
Give the pollsters of the 2012 cycle some credit – they’ve managed to straddle the fence, predicting a solid electoral victory for Barack Obama…and potentially a major popular vote win for Mitt Romney.
The top line of most of the recent polls has been easy enough to read. The Real Clear Politics national average represents a statistical tie as Obama leads by 0.7% but the sheer numbers of polls showing slight edges to Obama in key states has the conventional wisdom pegging the President at somewhere around 290 to 303 electoral votes. A step drop from 2008 but a large win by comparison to the recent histories of 2004 or 2000.
Yet the crosstabs of almost every pollster suggests a far different outcome as Mitt Romney holds a lead among unaffiliated/independent voters. And the margins are anything but slight. Romney leads independent voters by 7% with Fox News’ polling. By 9% with Rasmussen Reports. 12% according to two separate polls by NPR and the New York Times. 16% by Monmouth’s numbers. And a jaw-dropping 24% by CNN.
The lead isn’t universal – Gallup has Obama up 1% among indies with Politico having a similar result…after deciding they would qualify more indies as Republicans following Romney’s 10% lead just two weeks earlier. The trendline is obvious. The question is how much does it matter to win independents?
Conventional wisdom in politics is like conventional wisdom about everything else – it’s right up until the point it’s wrong. Whereas independent voters have been prized possessions in past elections, suddenly the value of these voters has been called into question:
It’s true that independents are a diverse group. But that’s mostly because the large majority of independents are independents in name only. Research by political scientists on the American electorate has consistently found that the large majority of self-identified independents are “closet partisans” who think and vote much like other partisans. Independent Democrats and independent Republicans have little in common. Moreover, independents with no party preference have a lower rate of turnout than those who lean toward a party and typically make up less than 10% of the electorate. Finally, independents don’t necessarily determine the outcomes of presidential elections; in fact, in all three closely contested presidential elections since 1972, the candidate backed by most independent voters lost.
Let’s look at that last statement in greater detail.
On the surface, it’s 100% correct. Jerry Ford, John Kerry and George W. Bush all won the independent voter demographic and all three lost the popular vote (although not the election in all three cases). Bush won indies by 2% and lost by 0.5% in an electorate that was 4% more Democrat than Republican. Kerry won indies by 2% as well but lost by 3% in a tied partisan affiliation election. And Ford, amidst a massive movement of Republicans to Independents post-Watergate, won that block by 4%…the largest margin for a losing candidate and done in an electorate with a 15% Democratic advantage.
The trendline here is simple as well – a narrow advantage among independent voters guarantees nothing other than perhaps a close election. But compare Romney’s margin among indies to past performances. Obama won indies by 7%. Clinton won indies, despite an independent candidate on the ballot, by 8% in 1996 and 6% in 1992. Bush Sr. won by 14% in 1988 and Reagan by 28% and 25% respectively in his two races.
Can Romney win independents and still lose the election? Of course. But only if a few other conditions arise. The electorate has to be strongly Democrat. Many pollsters are using D+8ish models ala 2008 even as 825,000 voters in eight key battleground states dropped their Democrat registration. Or Romney could lose a key chunk of Republicans to offset his gains among indies. That too seems unlikely as Democrats have held voter identification advantages every year since 1972 except in 2002 & 2004 – and the largest Republican advantage was 1% in ’02.
Some have argued that Romney’s lead among independents is simply a reflection of dissatisfied Republicans having left the party but whom will still vote conservatively. It’s not a bad theory and it’s supported by some evidence. Gallup has Republicans at 28% and Independents at 38%. Pew has Republicans at 25% and Independents at 36%. Yet neither Gallup or Pew reflect such a shift in their presidential polling. Gallup has Obama up 1% among indies, as previously stated, and Pew has Romney up only 3%. If Republicans just dropped the ‘R’ from their ID, someone forgot to tell them.
The end result isn’t actually about who wins on Tuesday. Regardless of the outcome, most of the pollsters have made a series of startling errors. Either they’ve completely whiffed on properly defining party IDs within whatever likely voter model they’re using or they can’t accurately identify independent voters as a demographic. Simply put, the numbers don’t match. Obama can’t win if he loses the largest party ID block by high single or low double digits. Conversely, Romney can’t lose if he wins independents by those kinds of margins.
The question in doubt tomorrow isn’t whether the pollsters erred but on which end of the spectrum. We’ll find out for sure on Tuesday. The pollsters will have to find out how they went wrong starting on Wednesday.
ADDENDUM: Over at Mr. Dilettante’s, D pithily surmises the conundrum of the 2012 polls:
One thing will be decided this time — either polling is broken, or the time-honored tradition of reporting and observation is obsolete. It’s a fascinating question to resolve.