The Story Behind the Polls

What’s with the polls?

In 2004, the electorate that went to the polls or voted absentee was, according to the adjusted NEP exit poll, 37 percent Democratic and 37 percent Republican. In party identification, it was the most Republican electorate since George Gallup conducted his first random sample poll in October 1935.

But most recent national polls show Democrats with an advantage in party identification in the vicinity of 5 percent to 12 percent. Party identification usually changes slowly. Historically, voters have switched from candidates of one party to candidates of the other more readily than they have changed their party identification.

Over time, big changes in party ID can and do occur. When I started in the polling business, in 1974, national party identification was almost 50 percent Democratic and not much more than 25 percent Republican.

Since then, Democratic party ID has fallen, particularly in the South, where many voters who considered themselves Democrats found themselves voting Republican for president and, increasingly in the 1980s and 1990s, for other offices, as well.

Republican party ID has increased. But that’s a process that took decades. If you could go back in history and conduct polls, I don’t think you’d find any, and certainly not many, two-year periods when the balance in party identification shifted from even to having one party 12 percent ahead of the other.

At this stage of the campaign, pollsters try to screen their respondents and report only those who answer a series of questions in ways that suggest they are actually going to vote. Many polls find that a higher proportion of Democrats than Republicans pass the screen. Others find similar proportions do. But pollsters of both parties will admit that polls do a poor job at projecting turnout.

That was particularly true in 2004, when both parties conducted massive turnout drives. Democrats concentrated on black neighborhoods in central cities and on university towns, where they could be sure of getting 80 percent to 90 percent of the vote. They achieved their goals in just about every target state, with big turnouts in Cleveland and Madison, Wisc., in St. Louis and Gainesville, Fla. Nationally, John Kerry got 16 percent more popular votes than Al Gore had in 2000.

Republicans had a different turnout operation, utilizing 1.4 million volunteers and "microtargeting" potential voters, enabling them to motivate voters by emphasizing issues especially important to them. They found new Republican voters in fast-growing exurbs (George W. Bush carried 97 of the nation’s 100 fastest-growing counties) and in population-losing rural counties (the key to Bush’s carrying Ohio). They even found some in central city neighborhoods that are heavily Democratic.

Nationally, George W. Bush got 23 percent more popular votes than he had in 2000. That’s comparable to Franklin Roosevelt’s 22 percent popular vote increase between 1932 and 1936.

Fewer people vote in off-year elections than in presidential years. In 2002, 75 million people voted. In 2004, 122 million did. My hunch is that people who identify themselves as independents are substantially less likely to vote this year than people who identify as Republicans or Democrats — which would be good news for Republicans, since independents give Bush low job ratings. Another hunch is that the Republican turnout apparatus, with which the Democrats haven’t yet caught up, will boost Republican turnout as it did in 2004, and that the resulting electorate will be more evenly divided in party identification than the electorates shown in most of the public polls.

Serious pollsters concede that there are some problems with polling. Americans have fewer landline phones than they used to, and the random digit dialing most pollsters use does not include cell-phone numbers. Larger and larger percentages of those called are declining to be interviewed.

Interviewers can inject bias in the results. The late Warren Mitofsky, who conducted the 2004 NEP exit poll, went back and found that the greatest difference between actual results in exit poll precincts and the reports phoned in to NEP came where the interviewers were female graduate students — and almost all the discrepancies favored the Democrats.

The pollsters I know, both Republican and Democratic, are continually questioning their own procedures and are trying to adjust them to reflect changes in the workings of society. Polls, they all concede, are imperfect instruments, to be read with some caution.

As the results come in on election night, and as we peruse them in the days and weeks afterward, we will see whether the party identification of the electorate has changed as much as many of the polls suggest. In off-years especially, the key to elections is who comes out to vote.