Why Party ID Matters, and Why Pollsters Avert Their Eyes

Over in National Journal, pollsters respond to the accusation from John McLaughlin (the pollster, not the television host) reported here last week:

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster and consultant to GOP candidates, told the conservative National Review last week that Democrats are lobbying media pollsters “to weight their surveys to emulate the 2008 Democrat-heavy models.”

“The intended effect is to suppress Republican turnout through media polling bias,” McLaughlin said.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is unconvinced. “Why would pollsters want to look inaccurate?” Miringoff asked rhetorically in a phone interview.

Miringoff, who is conducting three battleground-state polls each week for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, called the focus on party identification “too narrow.”

“It’s an easy target in a sense because you can look at the last [election], see the difference and jump on board,” he said. Marist, like Quinnipiac, does not weight its results according to party ID.

The defenses of the pollsters are conflating some issues.

First, the basics: Most Democrats are going to vote for the Democratic candidate, most Republicans are going to vote for the Republican candidate, and the independents are usually going to split somewhat evenly. So the proportion of the three groups more or less determines which candidate the polls are going to show ahead.

No one claims to be able to predict, with absolute certainty, what the partisan makeup is going to be on Election Day. But we do have a range from recent history — from even in 2004 and a seven percentage point advantage for Democrats in 2008. If a pollster believes that the electorate will be even more heavily Democratic in 2012 than it was in 2008, I’m willing to hear those arguments, but I think it’s a tough case to make. The last presidential cycle was a perfect storm for Democrats — an unpopular GOP incumbent, frustration over wars overseas, a terrifying economic meltdown, a Republican nominee who had spent much of his recent career fighting his own party and who openly admitted he wasn’t focused on economics, the first African-American major party nominee in U.S. history…

This year you have Obama running as an incumbent in an extremely tough economy, a more aggressive GOP nominee, the grassroots energy of the Tea Parties, a huge change in each party’s financial resources, the novelty of making history wearing off, and now our embassies under siege in the Middle East…

And then there is the shift in the number of voters who are registered voters in each party

Yet our objection keeps getting misstated and twisted by poll defenders time and again. Here’s Chris Cillizza, claiming the complaints are “a series of false assumptions none bigger than that because the country has been virtually evenly divided on partisan lines for the past decade or so that the party identification question should result in something close to a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans.”

No. I do not demand an even split, nor do any of the other folks paying attention to this factor. I do think that a split of D+7 or more is excessive, and that a D+3 or D+4 divide — halfway between the GOP peaks of 2004 and 2010, and the Democrat peak of 2008 — is more likely. But more importantly, if a pollster is going to assert that the electorate is going to be more heavily Democratic this cycle than it was the previous historical high, they ought to explain why they think this is the case.

Because for much of this year, in quite a few national polls, we’ve seen Romney winning almost all the Republicans and hold a lead among independents, and still trail Obama, because Obama is winning almost all the Democrats, and Democrats make up such a large share of the sample.

Possible? Sure, anything’s possible. But if a pollster is going to offer a hypothetical electorate that looks different from everything we’ve seen before, I’d like to know why they think this is the case.

Without that, we can come up with our own theories. We can tell from the coverage that the vast majority of folks covering this campaign for mainstream publications think Romney is running a terrible campaign. Romney’s overseas trip was deemed disastrous, the pick of Ryan was deemed extremely risky, the Eastwood chair speech was “the worst speech ever given,”, Romney’s Libya remark was deemed “a huge mistake“, Romney’s “47 percent” remark was deemed an “utter disaster” … and yet the tracking polls show Obama with a miniscule lead.

What we see in the most disproportionate poll samples is confirmation bias. To many people covering this race, Romney should be trailing badly, Republicans are flailing desperately, and Obama is running an exponentially better campaign. Thus, it makes perfect sense for the electorate to be even more heavily Democrat than it was in 2008.

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