How Likely Is A ‘Likely Voter’ To Vote?

For several weeks, polls of “likely voters” have told us conflicting stories: National surveys see a presidential race that is neck-and-neck, or possibly Mitt Romney leading by a nose, while state-level polling credits President Obama with a consistent edge, especially in the Electoral College.

There are several possible explanations for the discrepancy. In a couple of days, we’ll know which one is right.

One possibility, proffered by strident partisans on both sides, is that polls showing the other team ahead are exercises in propaganda rather than public opinion research. There is clearly at least a small grain of truth to this assertion. Some pollsters have clear party affiliations, while others are independent organizations that nonetheless have a relatively consistent tendency to lean in one direction or another. Analysts have a term for this: “house bias.”

Polls taken internally by the two campaigns and the political parties, which are occasionally shared with the press, have likewise tended to diverge – at least in the case of those that the campaigns have decided to share. Each side presumably wants to convince its supporters that it is ahead in order to keep them motivated, but not to make supporters believe their man is ahead by so much that complacency sets in. Trash-talking the other side’s prospects also might serve to dishearten the opposition.

Another possibility is that the national and state polls are not as inconsistent as they appear. It is certainly possible that either Romney or Obama might win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College, as Al Gore did in 2000. This would be most likely to happen if Romney racks up a big vote in deep-red states like Texas, while some Obama voters in safe states like New York and California take the day off. This scenario also implies that Romney’s overall edge in popularity, at least among citizens who take the trouble to actually vote, will not hold up in the tightly contested swing states, and especially those that are part of Obama’s Midwestern “firewall” of Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa.

A third possibility is that the polls are consistently, unintentionally wrong – either overstating Romney’s strength nationally, or understating it in key state-level surveys. This is what statistician-journalist Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog on the New York Times website, calls “systematic bias.” And it is what I believe is the most likely explanation for the confusing poll numbers.

I think the basic problem is that most polls try to treat all respondents equally, as much as possible. But some people are more likely than others to share what they are going to do, and some people are more likely than others to actually go ahead and do it.

Let’s start with the basics. If you want to gauge the likely outcome of an upcoming election, you don’t survey people who can’t vote, such as children and foreigners. The biggest possible survey pool is registered voters. Pollsters of all persuasions acknowledge, however, that surveying all registered voters creates an overstated Democratic sample, because registered Democrats tend to vote at lower rates than registered Republicans.

So the pollsters ask their survey subjects whether they are “likely” to vote. As Election Day draws nearer, pollsters and analysts like Silver and the website RealClearPolitics.com pay less and less attention to surveys of registered voters, and greater attention to surveys of likely voters. Pollsters use varying methods to determine which respondents are genuinely “likely” voters, but my understanding is that most pollsters, having determined which voters are “likely,” count them equally. (Some may try to make further statistical adjustments.)

And here is where one potential problem arises. Consider a pool of 200 people: 100 who back Romney and 100 who back Obama. In this pool, hypothetically, personal circumstances such as work schedules and child care, and varying levels of enthusiasm for their candidate, are such that 90 of the 100 Romney voters will actually cast ballots, while only 80 of the 100 Obama voters will do so. Even at the 80 percent level, the Obama backers are “likely” voters. A survey that counts them equally with the Romney backers will thus overstate their strength, finding 50 percent support for the president when, in fact, he will receive only 47 percent (80 out of 170) of the vote.

Now, I simply assumed my way to this result. How can I know, in advance, that 90 of the 100 Romney backers will actually vote, while only 80 of the 100 Obama supporters will do so? I can’t, and neither can the pollsters. The problem is not that the pollsters are trying to skew their samples; it is that the samples may be skewed already, and the pollsters have only limited, imperfect means to detect and correct that distortion.

If the state-level samples are skewed this way, especially the crucial polls in the swing states, are the national polls similarly affected? If the answer were yes, the differences between the two sets of polls would remain unexplained. But I suspect the answer is no.

A socially conservative Republican voter in Texas, who probably did not start this election season as a Romney backer, may not be all that motivated to vote for him. Romney is going to carry Texas anyway, so the likely Romney voter in Texas may not be quite so likely to vote. But a socially conservative voter in Ohio, seeing a very close race in that state and having to choose between Romney and the even less socially conservative Obama, is probably quite a bit more likely to vote than his Texas counterpart. I think this, but I can’t prove it, at least not until after tomorrow’s results arrive.

Romney is drawing his strongest support from demographics that tend to vote very reliably, including whites (where Obama’s support is hovering near 40 percent), older voters, Jews and non-Hispanic Catholics. Obama is running strongly with college-educated voters, but they are a minority overall and a smaller minority in most swing states. His other key groups include African-Americans, young voters and Hispanics, all of which typically have low turnout rates. Obama benefited in 2008 from much better than typical turnout of those groups. The ultimate question of this election is whether he can repeat that performance.

I don’t think so or, more accurately, I don’t think he can do so to the same extent. I suspect, but again cannot demonstrate, that Obama’s get-out-the-vote efforts will make a difference; I just don’t think it will be as big a difference as four years ago.

As a result, I think Obama is highly likely to lose Florida and Virginia, which are rated as close by most analysts, and I have concluded that he will also probably lose Ohio, which is not what the polls have been showing. I think he is more likely than not to lose Wisconsin, despite polls showing him winning there. Wisconsin has voted Republican in statewide races four times in a row since 2010, and I don’t see why the result will be different this week.

Obama could also lose Pennsylvania, especially if the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy holds down turnout in key areas in the southeast part of the state, which is his stronghold. More likely Obama will pull out a narrow victory there, but if he loses Pennsylvania, the election is effectively over. New Hampshire and Iowa could probably go either way. A late GOP advertising effort in Minnesota probably won’t be enough to flip that state to the Republicans.

I am backing Romney in this election, so it is possible that my own personal preferences are biasing my conclusions. I have tried not to let this happen, but I am human, so we have to wait until tomorrow night (at least) to see whether I succeeded.

One final note: I mentioned the private polls that campaigns take and sometimes share. There is a lot of information they don’t share, and I like to watch what the candidates actually do rather than what they say. Obama, until being caught up in post-Sandy recovery last week, looked like a candidate who believed he was on the road to defeat. Romney has consistently campaigned like someone who sees victory coming. I believe both sides have reached similar conclusions to mine, with Republicans already trying to position themselves for jobs in a Romney administration.

The bottom line is that pollsters can only talk to registered voters or likely voters, while elections are decided by actual voters. In most surveys, the determination of a likely voter is probably accurate enough not to matter, especially when both sides are roughly equally likely to vote. But this does not look like that sort of election to me, and the systematic bias that Silver has cautioned us about seems likely to be at work.

About Larry M. Elkin 551 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

2 Comments on How Likely Is A ‘Likely Voter’ To Vote?

  1. Democrats may win, but without a majority in the Senate or House there will be a stalemate in Congress. In the next 4 years without capturing the House or Senate the President will have his hands securely tied. He will have limited power and trying to pass any major policies will be impossible. It will certainly be absolutely impossible to pass any kind of mass amnesty—THANK GOD FOR THAT. Our country cannot any longer afford to take in the impoverished from foreign countries in such numbers and expect taxpayers to support their families. My family finances certainly cannot afford to pay more taxes for people who shouldn’t even be here? It makes no sense when our government cannot afford to cover the costs of maimed servicemen, the homeless and the sick and handicapped.

    Two Congressional bills that guarantees bringing to a trickle the daily illegal alien invasion? 1. A nationwide E-Verify “THE LEGAL WORKFORCE ACT” that will forever stanch jobs being handed to illegal workers, as long as the penalties for employers are harsh and include prison time. 2. “THE BIRTHRIGHT CITIZENSHIP ACT” that will immediately stop the annual progression of smuggling unborn children into America, as no longer will that baby or babies be granted immediate citizenship, as at least one family member must be a U.S. citizen. These are the ONLY assurances that will not only start a self deportation of foreign nationals unlawfully settled here, but will end illegal immigration as we know it. Neither the Democrats backed by the hard core Liberal influence or even Republicans have kept these laws from being voted upon in Congress. The TEA PARTY of moderate Conservatives will force these two extremely major laws into the spotlight and insist that these laws have a chance of passage. ITS IS NOT JUST WHITE AMERICANS THAT WILL SUFFER UNDER OBAMA, AS PRESIDENT AGAIN, BUT EVERY LEGAL IMMIGRANT FROM ANY COUNTRY WHO IS NOW PAYING TAXES? You have seen gas prices, well this present President is in collusion with the environmental zealots who have already closed down coal sources, but he is out to limit drilling for oil and natural gas?

    MAJOR EXAMPLE, LOS ANGELES COUNTY – Year-end closing 2011 figures from the Department of Public Social Services reported that over $646 million in welfare and food stamp benefits were issued to illegal alien parents for their native-born children, announced Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. The $646.2 million consisted of $258 million in CalWORKs (welfare) and $388 million in Food Stamps) — a $21 million increase over the previous year. “With the $550 million for public safety and nearly $500 million for healthcare, the total cost for illegal aliens to this one County taxpayer exceeds $1.6 billion dollars a year,” said Antonovich. “These costs do not include the hundreds of millions of dollars for education.” Californians need to contact their Representative, specifically governor Brown and the Liberal State assembly and demand no more illegal alien pandering, or Californian taxpayers will be taxed even more from now to doomsday.

    The 9th circuit court is run by a bunch of Liberal judges, who interpret the laws according to their plan, not to the edicts of the Constitution. If something isn’t done in the next presidency, America will be further overrun with –unfettered poverty. It’s still not a felony to cross illegally into this sovereign nation and as I see it and millions who are involved in the TEA PARTY, the laws have been ignored for years. Why should citizens or lawful immigrants with papers have to compete with illegal aliens? I just know America is in serious trouble with a 16 trillion dollar deficit, and no real enforcement to stop more human financial encumbrances entering through our borders or jetting in from a foreign country. It’s a real catch 22 situation with the winners being businesses using cheap labor, selling more TV and household appliances, food and a whole retinue of things needed to live. They go to the bank loaded down with their dollars, but the taxpayers must foot the bills for free health care, free children’s schooling to K-12, government housing and other special programs, while citizens-residents pay the immense bill.

    The latest [dictator] to publicly announce his support for the commander-in-chief’s reelection bid was Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Earlier in the year the government-official daughter of Communist Cuban military dictator Raul Castro proclaimed her country’s support for Obama during a visit to the U.S. That brings us to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has eliminated most elections in his country, monopolized all major media and destroyed the political party system. … In a letter to a major newspaper, the president of a group dedicated to expanding freedom around the world points out that under Putin there has been an “across-the-board crackdown on civil society.” The piece goes on to ask: “Will Obama stand up against Putin’s abuses?” Unlikely, now that the Russian dictator has extended his endorsement to our current President.

    These two mandatory bills have been concealed from public awareness, so that all Americans can convince their State and Federal lawmakers how important it is to pass them. Just the cost of educating children of illegal aliens is a phenomena amount of taxpayers’ money. Hundreds of billions of dollars that could benefit our own citizens and legal resident are instead of being forced to pay these uncompensated mandates forced by the courts. This is the original source of the DREAM ACT controversy, of pregnant Mother mainly arriving here from some foreign government and placing their financial burden on U.S. taxpayers. And so it continuous—the unceasing flow of mothers carrying hidden fetuses, that are clogging our hospitals so delivery becomes our responsibility.

    Under another Obama 4 year administration is a promise to the 20 million plus illegal aliens a Path to Citizenship. So not only illegal aliens will be tempted to vote for the man, but many will and Democrats will intentionally stay oblivious. The cost according to the Heritage Foundation is well over TWO TRILLION DOLLARS to complete the process, which includes Social Security, Supplementary Social Security, retirement, pensions, health care, education and other different financial programs; much of it paid for by taxpayers. At a working age, American citizens begin paying for their retirement, having paid into these systems, but illegal migrants and immigrants in the majority have not? In fact they are even fraudulently using their children to collect 4.6 Billion dollars in child credits, which this government and probably the previous ones don’t think it’s worth prosecuting?

    If you want higher taxes; higher gas prices at the pump; an archaic tax system that benefits the privileged in both parties; a ever growing federal government with rules and regulations that inhibit new business creation; and a president that is giving even more to the “freeloader” parasites that cohabit with the illegal alien invaders who are draining the state reservoirs of money. Obama’s “Political Correctness” is causing major problems and effecting foreign policy. He has alienated Israel to some extent with his Social ideology, he refuses to us the term “Terrorist” and he still wants to keep transmitting taxpayers money in huge amounts money to Egypt and many countries and not exclusively in the middle east that hate American guts. . It also seems that Obama is in accord with the corrupt United Nations, who not only allow animal-terrorists as the arch enemy to America and Israel as the President of Iran to spew out his vitriol garbage, but the UN also wants to globally tax every country. What our Congress should demand by American voters is get the UN out of our face, and cut off the 10 billion dollars we send to them.

    Join your local TEA PARTY.org is fighting back against the overall corruption in the dominant political parties and elected officials. But first to get the Conservative engine moving forward, we must vote in Mitt Romney, so that the TEA PARTY can gain the momentum of the GOP? NOTHING WILL EVER CHANGE UNDER THE DEMOCRATS OR REPUBLICANS. HOW MUCH MORE CAN AMERICA TAKE? SKY ROCKETING GAS PRICES, WHEN THIS ADMINISTRATION HAS COMMANDEERED “THE PEOPLE’S LAND, AND ONLY A FEW PERMITS FOR ENERGY COMPANIES TO DRILL FOR OIL, LOCATE NATURAL GAS AND HAVE DECIMATED THE COAL INDUSTRY. THIS NATION COULD BE INDEPENDENT OF COUNTRIES THAT HATE US, AND WE COULD BE SELLING OUR OVER ABUNDANT RESOURCES TO FRIENDLY COUNTRIES THAT ARE HURTING. THE SATURATION OF EPA RULES AND REGULATIONS THAT IS SMOTHERING SMALL BUSINESS CREATIVITY; ANY CHANCE OF A NEW TAX REFORM CODE, THAT WOULD ERASE SPECIAL INTERESTS OR THE WEALTHY, BUT FAIRNESS FOR ALL, EQUITY FOR ALL?

    TERM LIMITS IN WASHINGTON, SO THE POLITICIANS WILL BE FREE FROM FIGHTING FOR CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS AND THE MONEY FAVORS CORPORATE ENTITIES. WHAT THE TEA PARTY INSISTS ON IS RETURNING MANY RIGHTS TO THE STATES, INSTEAD OF BEING ADMINISTERED BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, SUCH AS HEALTH CARE. THE MOST OMINOUS ISSUE OF IS THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT GROWING LIKE A DANGEROUS WEED WITHOUT ANY RECOURSE. A MONOLITH THAT IS TAKING OVER EVERYTHING–A TERRIBLE EDUCATION SYSTEM THAT IS FAILING, A TAKEOVER OF THE HEALTH CARE SYSTEM, THE DISMANTLING OF OUR ENERGY RESOURCES AND THE THREAT TO OUR LIBERTIES AND SAFETY FROM ENEMIES ABROAD.

  2. Your 90-80 scenario has one omission: Enthusiasm has already been accounted for in the likely voter screen. So if you start with 100 likely voters on each side, if you want to argue that 90 likely Rs but only 80 likely Ds will vote, you would need to argue that there is some enthusiasm that the likely voter filter failed to catch.
    There may be, but those filters have gone through a lot of tuning over the years to make them good predictors of whether people will vote. Chances are they’ll predict well this time around too. If somebody says they’re enthusiastic, it means they are enthusiastic whether they’re a D or an R.

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