Tripping Over The Tie-Breakers

A few days ago, Joe Trippi published an blog post indicating that he believed it was essentially a tied election, but that the tie-breakers went to Obama.  We're still just at the very beginning of the actual election season, so its a little hard to predict how things will play out.  But I think he's probably off-base, and I think a good argument can be made that the tie-breakers favor McCain.  Consider Trippi's analysis:

Polls are likely underestimating the turnout of young voters because many of these voters use cell phones and pollsters are having a difficult time including their views with accuracy. Obama has a big advantage with these voters. As a potential tie-breaker – ADVANTAGE OBAMA.

Nothing drives me battier than this argument about why we can't trust the polls, which we will hear over and over again.  This has been floating around at least since 2002.  And yet there is zero evidence that cell phone-only households are having an effect on the reliability of telephones. 

Riddle me this:  Were the elections in 2002, 2004, and 2006 skewed -- even a point or two -- toward the Democrats or Republicans relative to the polls?  If cell-phone only households are even starting to have an effect, I think we should have at least started to see it in the results, with Democrats overperforming the polls.


But I think the answer is clear, that if any party overperformed the polls it was the Republicans over the last few cycles.  In 2002, Republicans did better than the polls predicted.  In 2004,  the final RCP average for Bush/Kerry was Bush+2.0 over Kerry, he won by 2.5.  Note also that the polls predicted that Democrats would win Senate seats in FL and AK, that Vitter would only reach 43% in LA, and that Coburn and DeMint would win by mid-to-high single digits.  Republicans won in FL and AK, Vitter reached 50%, and Coburn won by 12 while DeMint won by 10.

Even in 2006, Senators like Allen, Burns, and Talent performed as well or better than the final polling indicated they would.  This is especially telling for Allen, who hails from a state which probably has as high a percentage of cell phone households as any in the country.

This may one day become a problem.  But for now, there isn't any evidence that cell-phone-only households are creating a systemic bias in the polling that favors Republicans in polling.

Polls are likely underestimating African-American turnout in the election for the same reason. Many of these households have cell phones instead of landlines, have only recently been registered to vote, or do not get through the screening questions of pollsters including “did you vote in the last election?” As a potential tie-breaker – ADVANTAGE OBAMA

As far as cellphones go, see above (and I haven't read anything indicating that African Americans have a uniquely high percentage of cellphone only households). 

The recently registered to vote or "did you vote in the last election" issue raised by Trippi is a valid one -- or at least will become valid.  There is no doubt the Dems have excelled in voter registration this cycle, and will probably bring a lot of new voters out.  These will probably be screened out of polling by "did you vote last time" or "how long have you been registered" screening questions.  But for right now, most of the polling is still registered voter polling, so this isn't really a problem.

And remember, African Americans are concentrated in states that are heavily blue and heavily red.  Bumping out AA turnout in might be worth a point or two in VA, and could make a difference there, but even an extra 5 points in MS or GA won't flip a state.  And it surely won't help in IL or NY.

The Bradley Effect. So named because when Tom Bradley, the African-American Mayor of Los Angeles ran for Governor of California polls showed him up by 10points – he lost the election. Pollsters later determined that many white voters had failed to tell pollsters the truth about how they intended to vote. I was Tom Bradley’s Deputy Campaign Manager in 1982. I saw the “Bradley effect” up close at the age of 26 – it was real. It is 26 years later and I can tell you two things for sure it isn’t the minus 10 points that it was in 1982 but it isn’t zero either. There will be an overestimation of the number of white voters casting ballots for Obama. As a potential tie-breaker – ADVANTAGE McCAIN.

I actually think the Bradley effect is something different.  It isn't that white voters lie to pollsters about who they will vote for (though exit pollsters are another matter altogether).  They lie and say they are undecided, when they really aren't.  I wish I had the polling handy, but my recollection is that for Bradley, Wilder, Gantt et al, got pretty much exactly what the final polling  was.  The undecideds broke almost unanimously for their opponents.

We saw the same effect for Obama again and again in the primary, in states like NH, TX, MA, RI, CA, OH, PA, WV, KY, the list goes on.  There were exceptions -- mostly in Southern states with high AA populations.  But the bottom line is that for a candidate who has a really hard time getting to 50% in the polls, that's really not good news at all.

Two other potential tie-breakers are money and organization. On the money front its clearly ADVANTAGE OBAMA. Barack Obama will have far greater resources than the McCain campaign and the GOP — and with those resources Obama will be able to run much stronger field and get-out-the-vote operations in state after state than McCain.. Traditionally a strong organization can make up 1 or 2 points on election day – occasionally even 3 points. But is this already baked into the cake? If young voters and African American voters are going to be underestimated – are they not the 2 to 3 points Obama’s organization will be turning out?

Actually, I'm not certain about this at all.  Obama/DNC will probably have more money than McCain/RNC, but I'm not sure it will be decisive.  In fact, since campaign spending is logarithmic in its effect, I'm not certain a $100M to $80M advantage will help.  The bottom line for me on this is that Obama has already spent $300M on this campaign -- an astounding sum.  And he can't get to 50%.  He has no more "big fancy speech" opportunities, which is his absolute strong point.  What else is he going to do?

Finally, I think there is one more important factor that Trippi overlooks.  Who are the undecideds?

Today's InsiderAdvantage poll shows the following breakdowns of the voters:


  McCain Obama Undecided
18-29 44 49 7
30-44 39 54 7
45-64 50 43 7
65+ 51 38 11
White 50 41 9
Black 13 82 5
Hisp. 48 52 0
Male 51 40 9
Female 42 52 6
Dem 15 79 6
Rep 84 6 10
Indep 45 47 8

Now, subsamples have error margins that are even higher than poll margins, so caveat lector and all that.  Still ,this is something I've noted in several states polls from SUSA.  The undecideds are disproportionately old, white, male, and center-to-center right.  In other words, they are demographics that Obama has had a difficult time winning over.

Oh, by  the way, I'm guessing they're also the people most likely to lie to pollsters about being undecided.

Advantage, McCain

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