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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Some Reflections on Polling in the Primaries

The polling has been bad this primary cycle. Last year's national polls were wrong - for both parties. The late polls in New Hampshire were wrong. Even in a state like Virginia, where McCain was supposed to win by a huge margin, he only won by a modest margin. What is more, pollsters have disagreed in state after state. One predicts California going to Romney. Another predicts it going to McCain.

What is going on?

There are surely many answers to the question. I'd like to suggest one I have not seen discussed in depth.

Let's start by taking note of an observation that political scientists have made since the 1950s. That is, average voters do not pay much attention to politics. This is a hard pill for political junkies to swallow, but swallow it we must. Indeed, I think most of the many inferential errors of inside-the-Beltway pundits can be chalked up to their false assumption that voters pay as much attention as they do. They need to get over this. It is just false.

We move from this starting point to a question: how do voters pick their candidate despite these low levels of information? Most researchers will tell you that they make use of cognitive heuristics - mental shortcuts that help them make decisions amidst uncertainty. Uncertainty is the consequence of inattention. Voters simply do not know that much about what is going on - but they nevertheless make a vote choice. Their mental shortcuts are tried-and-true ways of making good decisions despite this uncertainty.

Think of it this way. Political junkies might know the in's-and-out's of each candidate's health care proposals. They can thus make decisions about which they like best. However, the average voter does not have this kind of information. Yet, when he gets to the voting booth, he gets the same choice that the junkie does. The shortcut is his way through the uncertainty.

This leads us to another question - what serves as the shortcut? The answer for virtually the entire country is partisan identification. Upwards of 90% of the nation has some kind of party affiliation. This is despite the polls that identify the size of the independent vote as larger. It is not. There is, for sure, some portion of the country that tells the pollsters they are independent - but when we look carefully at them, we see that most of them lean to one party or the other.

Not only is party identification held by almost all of us - it is an incredibly precise predictor of vote choice. Republicans will almost always go 90/10 for the Republican candidate. Democrats will do the same for their candidate. Most of us have a party identification, and most of us rely on it quite heavily.

What does that mean in a general election? If partisanship is a near universal feature that is incredibly powerful, the preferences of most voters are anchored throughout the campaign - even though they are paying very little attention. They do not have to pay attention to know whom they will vote for. Accordingly, we will see the polls vary only a little bit throughout the campaign. Oftentimes, they will break in late October or even early November. However, the magnitude of the break will be relatively modest. This is not to say it will be inconsequential; just a few point swings in either direction could make a difference in many states. They might swing by +/- 10 points during the whole cycle - but this is paltry compared to some of the massive swings in this primary cycle.

A big reason for this stability is partisanship. As I said, it serves as an anchor. That is a good metaphor for it. Partisanship anchors preferences, keeping them from swaying, drifting, or listing wildly during the campaign.

In a primary campaign, voters must choose among candidates who are all of the same party. Partisanship therefore does not enter into their decisions. It is a non-factor. I think this might be inducing the wild swings in the polls. The polls are varying because the voters are; the voters are varying because their partisanship is not stabilizing their preferences.

Of course, primary voters tend to pay more attention to politics than general election voters. This probably makes them more able to make decisions without the use of their partisanship. Nevertheless, they still pay a price for not being able to use it. To say that primary voters are better informed than general election voters is not to say that they are well informed, or that they behave how the media implicitly assumes they do (i.e. carefully following every speech, parsing every sentence, keeping a constantly updated evaluation of the state of the race, etc). They do not do this.

It thus should be unsurprising that candidate personalities are so influential in voters' decision-making processes. How else do you make determinations when party distinctions are non-existent? Candidates often try to create clear contrasts, but these usually amount to making mountains out of molehills. The average voter is not really paying much attention, anyway. Thus, they have to go by their personal evaluations of the candidates.

This is not to say that vote choices are random. Clearly, there has been a regular pattern to the early contests. Certain types of voters obviously prefer certain types of candidates. The point is that without partisanship, personality is what makes the difference. And voters do not start to take careful note of personalities until late in the cycle. Consider that 48% of New Hampshire Democrats claimed to make their choice in the last week of the campaign. From a certain standpoint, that is incredible. If you think about all of the attention political junkies have paid to this race since last January - it is almost unbelievable to think that voters would not have decided months ago. But, if we put ourselves in the shoes of the average voters, and try to recreate their thought processes - it makes a lot of sense. Their partisanship cannot serve as a quick, easy guide. Thus, they have to take a good, long look at the candidates as people. Given their typical inattention to politics, the time when this happens is the last week or so.

This might explain the wide variability of the primary polling. Because they have not been anchored by partisanship - voter opinions have been unstable for most of the cycle, up until the very end when we are wont to see a massive break in one direction or another. The "error" in the polls might simply be a reflection of public indecision. For that matter, Clinton's massive lead through most of last year might have its origins here as well - without their partisanship, poll respondents had little to go on except their vague sense of the media's consensus view of the race. Predictably, they claimed to support Clinton. Finally, this might account for momentum. Voters take a close look at winners at precisely the moment they are basking in the glow of positive media coverage. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that more informed voters are less susceptible to momentum effects.

These considerations have two implications. The first is good news for pollsters: life will get better for you! When we move into the general election - the polls will settle down and start agreeing with one another. I would note the stability in those head-to-head match-ups. They have barely budged an inch even as the race in both parties has been chaotic. Given that voters have their party identification to ground their general election responses to the pollsters - it makes sense they would be steady. The second is a warning to consumers of political news: continue to be wary of these primary polls. Without partisanship anchoring vote choices, they are still prone to large dramatic shifts at the last minute. That's what happens when voters try to make decisions without their use of most trusted cue, their partisanship.

-Jay Cost