What Is Going on in the California Senate Race?

What Is Going on in the California Senate Race?

By Sean Trende - October 26, 2010

If you follow California Senate polling closely, you have to be feeling a little bit nauseated from the roller coaster ride you've been on.  Some polls are showing Senator Barabara Boxer with a comfortable 9-point lead and above 50 percent, while others are showing a much closer race.  One Republican pollster even shows Fiorina ahead. 

What is going on here?  The answer is something I've discussed before:  Pollsters are having a devil of a time agreeing on what the electorate is going to look like.  Let's take a look at the partisan breakdown of the polls, sorted by the edge for Senator Boxer.


As you can see, the ratio of Democrats to Republican in the sample goes hand-in-glove with the size of Boxer's edge.  More Democrats equals more Boxer votes.  In fact, the adjusted r-square is pretty nice -- about .74.  These polls' internals actually don't disagree that much -- most of them have both candidates losing about 10 percent of their respective bases, while Fiorina has a double-digit edge among independents.

So who is right?  Well, that's the frustrating thing -- we can't definitively say.  But we can get some sense of history here.  The following table shows the exit poll results for 2008, 2006 and 2004, as well as the present early voting numbers:


As you can see, the pollsters showing a comfortable Boxer lead are showing electorates that are similar to 2008.  On the other hand, the pollsters who are showing a tight race see an electorate more like 2004 or 2006. 

As I've mentioned, there are many potential reasons for this.  If a pollster uses a common question -- did you vote in 2006 or 2008? -- to screen out voters, then that pollster will let all the Obama surge voters from 2008 proceed to later screening questions (if any) while keeping any new tea partiers or newly-enthusiastic Republicans out of the mix. If you let through too many mildly enthusiastic voters in a year like this you are probably letting through a large group of Democrats who won't ultimately vote.  As you might expect, we saw an opposite effect at the state level in 2008.  One point worth noting here:  both Suffolk and PPP look an awful lot like SurveyUSA and Reuters when they report numbers for those who have actually voted.

In the end, we can't know who has the electorate right until Election Day.  For now, if you think California Dems have gotten their mojo back to 2008 levels, Boxer is a pretty safe bet.  If, however, you think that things have settled down to 2006 levels and Republicans are surging, then this race is a coin toss.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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