Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Likely Story

RKO, 1947.

I've got what may be one of those big ideas, that I've been nursing since Election Night and the Red Wave that never broke in spite of the handicappers, which is that there's something defective about the pollsters' traditional collection of data for adults, registered voters, and likely voters—they really need to be collecting data for unlikely voters, because they're the ones who make the difference.

This is just another way of putting a claim I've made before. What I normally say is that the normal pollsters' picture, where the electorate is made up of partisan voters who know what they want and swing voters who have trouble making up their minds whom to vote for, is wrong; the unpredictable part is really the people who have trouble making up their minds whether to vote at all.  

Those who get engaged enough to do it can be the ones, in principle, who decide the winner, if there are enough of them, as just happened on November 8, when the officially likely voters seemed to be red-waving as predicted, but the winning edge came from younger women fired up by the Dobbs decision, actually the most committed to voting, but counted as unlikely because they hadn't voted that regularly (or ever) before. Then again there was Florida, where the opposite happened, and unlikely Democratic voters disappeared altogether, in terrible turnout:

In Miami-Dade County, there are 135,229 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but more Republicans showed up: 61% of registered Republicans voted and only 46% of Democrat registered voters.

There are 106,299 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Palm Beach County. 55% of registered Democrats showed up and 66% of Republicans showed up.

The same thing happened in Central and North Florida in several major urban areas. There are 53,156 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Hillsborough County but only 39% of Democrats showed up and 44% of Republicans showed up to vote.

Some chalk this up to increased migration to Florida of older white people from the Northeast, some to intimidation of Black and Latino voters by Governor Ron DeSantis, epitomized by those arrests of ex-convicts for voting in 2020 after

  • a 2018 referendum approved a state constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most former felony convicts
  • a 2019 bill from the Republican state legislature turned that around prohibited them from voting unless they had paid off all fines, fees, and costs resulting from the conviction (which disenfranchised more than 774,000 mostly Black Floridians)
  • a 2020 court finding that the 2019 bill was unconstitutional, and
  • a 2022 bill in which DeSantis established an "election police force" 
though those cases, the only ones Florida's new election police force was able to find and about as shoddily managed as Governor DeSantis's Martha's Vineyard anti-immigrant scam, seem to have all fallen apart in court in October.

Anyway, I've been saying for all this time I wish we had more information on nonvoters, and what's occurring to me now is that scrutiny of unlikely voters could get you to the same place; that's the basic pool the registered nonvoters come from.

It turns out that there is an effort at such a thing, at the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, which has been teaming up with USA Today to survey unlikely and unregistered voters since 2012. 

In 2012 itself, they got the kind of results that would give you some confidence, finding that unlikely voters would overwhelmingly vote for Obama against Romney, which seems to be pretty precisely what happened: in a high turnout election, the unexpected participants who made up the difference did vote heavily for Obama, giving him a higher margin than the likely-voter polls predicted.

In 2018, in contrast, their lede in USA Today was very negative: unlikely voters hated Trump, but weren't going to show up anyway:

Fifteen percent of unregistered voters said their vote “doesn’t count” or “won’t make a difference.” Nine percent of registered voters said the same.

Nearly 63% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I don’t pay much attention to politics because nothing ever gets done – it’s a bunch of empty promises.” And 68% agreed or strongly agreed with this sentiment: “I don’t pay much attention to politics because it is so corrupt.”

This time, they turned out to be tantalizingly wrong: unlikely voters' statements of their attitude (dislike of Trump) were a better predictor than their declared intentions. Again, unexpected participants made it a higher-turnout election than anybody was planning, and of course as we now know they voted Democrats into control of the House of Representatives.

I think this shows clearly enough that unlikely voter surveys could provide a lot of valuable information—still more, obviously, if they collected some demographic information (age, sex, ethnic identity, income level)—I'd really like to see that happen on a larger scale.

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