CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac Swing State Polls & Party ID

CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac Swing State Polls & Party ID

By Sean Trende - August 1, 2012

The new CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac polls showing President Obama with big leads (and above 50 percent) in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio are causing a lot of groans among Republicans and elation among Democrats. In particular, Republicans object to the outsized number of Democrats in the sample. This has been a consistent theme among Republicans this cycle: looking at the party ID numbers and discounting polls that show substantial Democratic advantages.

At first glance, there seems to be something to this complaint:

The party breakdown here looks a lot more like 2008 than 2010, if not even more Democratic. This isn’t broadly consistent with enthusiasm numbers from 2008 and 2010, nor is it consistent with independent polls of partisan ID among the electorate. In truth, we should generally expect a partisan breakdown somewhere between 2008 and 2010.

Nevertheless, for reasons I’ll explain shortly, my advice is to not pay too much attention to party identification. The only exception occurs in fairly narrow circumstances, when a particular pollster shows a substantial movement from sample to sample, while using a consistent methodology (as occurred in the recent iteration of the NBC/WSJ poll), without any outside stimulus that would explain the movement.

I say this, in part, because we’ve been having this debate for a very long time, and it usually goes nowhere. In 2004, re-weighting polls to reflect the 2000 exit polls was all the rage among Democratic bloggers. The argument went that Republicans hadn’t had parity with Democrats in polling in a very long time, so we should ignore polls showing Republicans even with Democrats, or perhaps even ahead of Democrats in terms of ID. Of course, the final exits showed a tie between the parties, as Republicans managed to turn out their base at “supercharged” levels.

Since then, the same thing has occurred in every election: The losing side objects to the partisan composition of polling. The polls then proceed to get the final result roughly correct.

The problem is that party identification is not an immutable characteristic, such as race, age, or gender. It fluctuates. Even the wording of the question can elicit very different answers. The exit polls ask this question: “No matter how you voted today, do you usually think of yourself as a . . . ?” The key phrases are “usually” and “think of yourself as.” If you eliminated “usually,” you would get a different overall response. If you phrased it in terms of how people usually voted, instead of how people usually “think of themselves,” you would get a different response.

In fact, this disparity shows up in the CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac sample. On page 8, at the top, they asked, “Generally speaking, do you consider yourself a . . . ?” (Note: The pollster doesn’t ask how they usually think of themselves, as with the exit polls, just how they think of themselves at that moment.) In Florida, the response was 27 percent Republican, 36 percent Democrat, and 32 percent Independent. At the bottom of the same page, they asked how voters were registered. The answer for Florida was “36 percent Republican, 42 percent Democrat, 20 percent unaffiliated.” The same disparity showed up in the other two states.

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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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