Monday, March 1, 2010

Nate SIlver debunks another polling myth

Here's the old chestnut (from Robert Moran):

In a two way race, political professionals don't even bother to look at the spread between the incumbent and the challenger, they only focus on the incumbent's support relative to 50%. Incumbents tend to get trace elements of the undecideds at the end of a campaign. Sure, there is the occasional exception, but this rule is fairly ironclad in my experience.

Here's Silver's takedown:

There are several noteworthy features of this graph:

1) It is quite common for an incumbent to be polling at under 50 percent in the early polling average; this was true, in fact, of almost half of the races (30 of the 63). An outright majority of incumbents, meanwhile, had at least one early poll in which they were at under 50 percent of the vote.

2) There are lots of races in the top left-hand quadrant of the graph: these are cases in which the incumbent polled at under 50 percent in the early polling average, but wound up with more than 50 percent of the vote in November. In fact, of the 30 races in which the incumbent had less than 50 percent of the vote in the early polls, he wound up with more than 50 percent of the vote 18 times -- a clear majority. In addition, there was one case in which an incumbent polling at under 50 percent wound up with less than 50 percent of the November vote, but won anyway after a small third-party vote was factored in. Overall, 19 of the 30 incumbents to have less than 50 percent of the vote in the early polling average in fact won their election.

3) 5 of the 15 incumbents to have under 45 percent of the vote in early polls also won their elections. These were Bob Menendez (38.9 percent), Tim Palwenty (42.0 percent), Don Carcieri (42.3 percent), Jennifer Granholm (43.4 percent) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (44.3 percent), all in 2006.3b) If we instead look at those cases within three points of Ted Strickland's 44 percent, when the incumbent had between 41 and 47 percent of the vote in early polls, he won on 11 of 17 occasions (65 percent of the time).

4) Almost all of the data points are above the red diagonal line, meaning that the incumbent finished with a larger share of the vote than he had in early polls. This was true on 58 of 63 occasions.

4b) On average, the incumbent added 6.4 percent to his voting total between the early polling average and the election, whereas the challenger added 4.5 percent. Looked at differently, the incumbent actually picked up the majority -- 59 percent -- of the undecided vote vis-a-vis early polls.

4c) The above trend seems quite linear; regardless of the incumbent's initial standing in the early polls, he picked up an average of 6-7 points by the election, although with a significant amount of variance.

5) The following corollary of Moran's hypothesis is almost always true: if an incumbent has 50 percent or more of the vote in early polls, he will win re-election. This was true on 32 of 33 occasions; the lone exception was George Allen in Virginia, who had 51.5 percent of the vote in early polls in 2006 but lost re-election by less than a full point (after running a terrible campaign). It appears that once a voter is willing to express a preference for an incumbent candidate to a pollster, they rarely (although not never) change their minds and vote for the challenger instead.

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