Precinct Level Voting, Turnout and Demographic Data

Fairplan 2000 is a remakrable website that offers uniquely detailed data on the 2000 election and on current demographics. It is a must view for anyone interested in local, targeted voter registration and get out the vote drives. Hell, the information is so amazing, that there is almost no limit to its potential poilitical use.

For example, here is my neighborhood, which you can tell did not turnout to vote in a particuarly high percentage in 2000, even though it went well over 75% for Gore. That is the story of the Democratic Party around the country, I guess.

This is exactly the sort of tool that self-starting activists need.

More on the Incumbent Rule

Nick Panagakis emailed me today about the article I posted yesterday, The Incumbent Rule is Weakening: Saw your piece on You may be surprised to hear that I was not surprised by your findings. Your 57%/39% distribution - while different from my paper in 1989 - should be compared with the 70%/25% or 65%/30% distributions found in later analyses in the 90s. And there is a question as to whether one year - 2002 - may be the source for the remaining difference. He is right about that. In 2002, the breakdown was 40 / 5 / 45 majority to incumbent / split evenly / majority to challenger. This was largely due to four polls on the Florida Governor's race where the majority broke for Bush, five on the Missouri Senate race where the majority broke for Carnahan, and three on the South Dakota Senate race where the majority broke for Johnson. Without 2002, my data shows a 62/35 split, not that much different from the two studies from the 90s that Nick points out. But wait, there's more: I am not a political scientist either - but an MBA. The important principle here is the "null hypotheses" from Stix 101; i.e., if there was no incumbent bias, the distribution between incumbent and challenger bias should be closer to 50%/50% or 48%/48% allowing for 4% no bias.

There are other kinds of bias - importantly party bias - that defy the null every election. In 1994 the year of the Gingrich revolution, there was Democratic bias because most polls understated GOPs in those elections. In 1998, there was GOP bias when in October the Judiciary Committee sent the articles of impeachment to the House floor which apparently motivated Democratic voters.

Even late national presidential polls hardly ever show anything close to normal distributions of party bias. The last time they did was in 1984.

My comments: 1. The 1989 paper was based polls on taken in the 70s and the 80s. As you can tell, poll result data were harder to find back them. The source document for my paper at the Polling Report site is attached. [I sent him mine as well] 2. Analysis of polls in the 90s showed less extreme distributions, closer to 70%/25% or 65%/30%. See the next four attachments. Tom Gruca at U. of Iowa wrote on the subject covering 1990-1992 and data that George Terhanian of Harris complied for another project I was working on.

3. In a 1996 Public Perspective article I refer to this distribution in state polls, a paper discussing the pattern in final national polls conducted just a few days out from election day. The national poll analysis showed "In 26 of 36 cases or 72%, more undecideds appear to vote for the challenger". See attached.

Regarding you analysis of over 220 polls that were taken in Governor, Senate and House races that involved an incumbent since 1998 taken within two weeks of Election Day.

4. I did not do 2000 elections. I did analyze the Terhanian data from 1998 above. They showed a distribution of:
Incumbent Bias 65%, Challenger Bias 31%, No bias 4%, still strong enough to reject the null.

5. In 2002 I analyzed 159 Senate and Gov races for the NCPP. The original spreadsheet is attached. See link below for my reason for doing this analysis<<br>.

In 2002, although incumbents are indicated in the spreadsheet, not evident is the distribution of 86 incumbent polls. I did an incumbent analysis in late 2002. The results were surprising, 38 were biased toward the incumbent *41* were biased for the challenger, and 7 had no bias.

At the time I figured that that after year after year of finding incumbent bias, that 2002 may have been an exception. 2002 may have been the exception in our data. That happens. Please send me your data. As for me, I was not prepared to conclude that the rule was suddenly out of date.

I will be doing the NCPP analysis after November. Let's wait to see what those data say. Again, please send me your data.


I actually agree with Nick on just about everything here. While the rule is not as strong as often reported, it is certainly not out of date. Even in my analysis, even including 2002, the distribution was enough in favor the challenger to demonstrate an incumbent bias on the part of polls. Further, his data from 2002 is almost identical to my own, and his 1998 data is close to my 1998 data (59-1-40).

My main contention in the post was that while the challenger picked up the majority of undecideds most of the time, it did not happen with enough frequency for us to reasonably assume that an incumbent leading but under 50% would lose. There is an incumbent bias, but it is more of an incumbent tendency, rather than a rule (as Thune and McBride are no doubt already aware).

More on this later. The discussion is getting really interesting.

The Incumbent Rule is Weakening

I am not a political scientist. In fact, the last and only time I even took a political science course was in the summer of 1991 at Le Moyne College as part of a summer program for "advanced" high school students. However, I believe I have compiled enough evidence to reverse a long-standing thesis within the political community. Contrary to both popular belief and previous findings, undecideds do not break overwhelmingly for the challenger.

In a famous 1989 article Incumbent Races: Closer than They Appear, through an analysis of 155 polls, Nick Panagakis articulated a set of findings, known as the "Incumbent Rule," that has almost become gospel among both the talking head and the blogosphere:

Our analysis of 155 polls reveals that, in races that include an incumbent, the traditional answers are wrong. Over 80% of the time, most or all of the undecideds voted for the challenger. (...)

In 127 cases out of 155, most or all of the undecideds went for the challenger:

Disposition of Undecided Voters    %
Most to Challenger  127 	       82
Split Equally	   9	       6
Most to Incumbent    19 	       12
The fact that challengers received a majority of the undecided vote in 82% of the cases studied proves that undecideds do not split proportionally. If there were a tendency for them to split proportionally we would see most undecided voters moving to incumbents, since incumbents win most elections. Similarly, even accounting for sample error, it's clear from the chart above that undecideds do not split equally.

For poll users and reporters this phenomenon, which we call the Incumbent Rule, means: (...)

An incumbent leading with less than 50% (against one challenger) is frequently in trouble; how much depends on how much less than 50%. A common pattern has been for incumbents ahead with 50% or less to end up losing. Final polls showing losing incumbents ahead are accurate. The important question is whether results are reported with an understanding of how undecideds decide.(...)

Why do undecided voters decide in favor of challengers?

It seems that undecided voters are not literally undecided, not straddling the fence unable to make a choice - the traditional interpretation. An early decision to vote for the incumbent is easier because voters know incumbents best. It helps to think of undecided voters as undecided about the incumbent, as voters who question the incumbent's performance in office. Most or all voters having trouble with this decision appear to end up deciding against the incumbent.

Panagakis goes on to show that in roughly half of the few circumstances when the majority of undecideds broke in favor of the incumbent, the challenger was a well-known figure moving from an equivalent position (Senator to Governor or Governor to Senator), thus adding even more credence to the notion that people have already made up their minds about the incumbent.

However, I spent the last five hours going through the archives of Polling Report. Since 1998, over 220 polls that were taken in Governor, Senate and House races that involved an incumbent, that were taken within two weeks of Election Day, and that were the final poll of a race taken by a given polling company, when compared to the final election results of the race in question, the majority of undecideds broke as follows:

Disposition of Undecided Voters      %
Most to Challenger 126		57
Split Equally	   8		 4
Most to Incumbent   86		39
These numbers are strikingly different from those found in Panagakis's study, which was conducted primarily using polls from 1988 and 1986. While the majority of undecideds broke in favor of the challenger a majority of the time, 43% of the time they did not (compared with 80%). If my research is accurate, and I believe it is, then it would be necessary to revise the Incumbent Rule. While incumbents under 50% but leading are in trouble, their predicament is not as bad as is often assumed. In fact, 43% of the time, such incumbents will be able to hold their lead or increase upon it.

Here is the complete breakdown of how the incumbents fared among undecideds in the 220 polls I surveyed:

% of Undecideds to Incumbent  % of Cases
100 or more                      11.4
75.1-99.9                         7.7
66.7-75.0                         8.6
50.1-74.9                        10.0
50.0                              3.6
33.4-49.9                        16.4
25.0-33.3                         7.3
0.1-24.9                         15.5
0.0 or less                      19.5
In a recent article, Charlie Cook stated that "if a well-known and established incumbent picks up one-quarter to one-third of the undecided vote, he is lucky indeed." However, as we can see here, incumbents pick up at least 1/4 of undecideds in 65% of all elections, and 57.7% of incumbents pick up more than 1/3 of all undecideds.

Like I said at the top of this article, I am not a political scientist. However, unless someone can show me otherwise, I think we should all grow more skeptical about the chances of challengers who are behind in polls to defeat incumbents who are under 50%.

What is the Matter with New Jersey?

Following up on Friday's post about Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas, Frank had a brilliant op-ed in the New York Times Friday about the role of the Federal Marriage Amendment in the culture wars:The amendment may have failed as law, but as pseudopopulist theater it was a masterpiece. Each important element of the culture-war narrative was there. Consider first its choice of targets: while the Senate's culture warriors denied feeling any hostility to gay people, they made no secret of their disgust with liberal judges, a tiny, arrogant group that believes it knows best in all things and harbors an unfathomable determination to run down American culture and thus made this measure necessary.(...)

What's more, according to the outraged senators, these liberal judges were acting according to a plan (...) Orrin Hatch of Utah asserted that "these were not a bunch of random, coincidental legal events"; and Jim Bunning of Kentucky warned how "the liberals, who have no respect for the law" had "plotted out a state-by-state strategy" that they were now carrying out, one domino at a time.(...)

While editorialists across the nation tut-tutted and reminded the senators that they had important work they ought to be doing, the senators fired back that in fact they were debating that most important of all possible subjects. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who took particular offense at the charges of insignificance, argued that this was a debate about nothing less than "the glue that holds the basic foundational societal unit together."(...)

Of course, as everyone pointed out, the whole enterprise was doomed to failure from the start. It didn't have to be that way; conservatives could have chosen any number of more promising avenues to challenge or limit the Massachusetts ruling. Instead they went with a constitutional amendment, the one method where failure was absolutely guaranteed -- along with front-page coverage.(...)

Failure sharpens the distinctions between conservatives and liberals. Failure allows for endless grandstanding without any real-world consequences that might upset more moderate Republicans or the party's all-important corporate wing. You might even say that grand and garish defeat -- especially if accompanied by the ridicule of the sophisticated -- is the culture warrior's very object.(...)

Losing is prima facie evidence that the basic conservative claim is true: that the country is run by liberals; that the world is unfair; that the majority is persecuted by a sinister elite.

Conservatives have constructed the notion of an all-powerful liberal elite who scorn the masses and rule the country from behind the scenes. This message has played well in a number of states, but has it actually persuaded more people than it has turned off? In a word, no:

This is a map of the states that have seen a significant (>7.0) swing in the partisan index toward either the GOP or the DNC since 1988. 177 electoral votes have swung noticeably toward Democrats, while 143 electoral votes have swung noticeably toward Republicans. In fact, the population difference between these two groups of states are masked by the two free electoral votes given to every state through their Senators. While the twenty GOP states in this map contain 103 congressional districts, the twelve Democratic states contain 153 congressional districts--a nearly 50% difference.

When I was in high school and college, the "liberal elite" line was spun a little differently than it is now. Back then, it wasn't just "liberal elites," but it was "northeastern liberal elites" who were a secret cabal controlling the nation. Not surprisingly, years of listening to this bigotry has resulted in the GOP taking enormous steps backward in almost every single northeastern state. Further, at one time Florida was the most solid of all southern GOP states, but now it is the most pro-DNC with a long-term trend that looks mighty favorable to Democrats (solid blue in 2012?). There are a lot of people in Florida with ties to the northeast, and it is hard to imagine this rhetoric helping the GOP much in the Sunshine state as well. Later on, the rhetoric changed to "Hollywood liberal," which obviously hasn't done much in California. Surely, there is nothing quite like seriously damaging your chances in California, New York and Florida to improve your future electoral propects (these three states alone combine for a larger population than the twenty red states on the map).

So, sure, the GOP has used the culture wars to win the center of the continent. However, in so doing, the have simultaneously lost more heavily populated swaths of the nation's coasts. I sure would like to read a book on this political shift. Who knows, maybe I will write it myself: What is the Matter With New Jersey? How Liberals Won the Coasts, Cities and Minorities of America. The book jacket could contain the following blurb:

As recently as 1994, New Jersey was a pro-Republican state. A popular GOPer named Christine Whitman held the statehouse, and she worked to cut taxes in perhaps the most heavily taxed state in the nation. Bush had almost won New Jersey in 1992, losing the state by only two points despite losing nationally by 6. Many talked about Whitman as a possible Presidential candidate in 2000.

Ten years later, the situation in New Jersey has changed drastically. In 2000, Al Gore won the state by 16 points during an election decided by less than one point. Had it not been for the Philadelphia media market, the Bush campaign would not have run a single ad in the state. After Bush became President, Whitman was quickly spirited out of the statehouse for the EPA in order to avoid a humiliating general election defeat in 2001 (in 1997, she survived by only a few hundred votes, and no one ever talked about the Presidency again). In 2002, an incumbent Democratic Senator resigned under a cloud of corruption, but Democrats still held the seat by double-digits in what was otherwise a landslide year for Republicans. In 2003, Democrats took control of both houses in the state legislature. All during this time, taxes have remained sky high. Why has the conservative message become so utterly ineffective in what had been very recently a lean-GOP state? What happened, and is that representative of trends in other parts of the country?

Republican Means and Dangerous Democratic Counter-Means in Arizona

We do not often have disagreements on the lefty-blogosphere, so now that I find myself in a minority lefty-opinion, I think it is a good idea to explore it. However, I promise not to write about this for at least another week.

Are Republicans the majority of Nader's effort in Arizona? You bet they are. Is Nader's 2004 campaign damaging to the left? You bet it is, especially when you consider his main opponent among the Greens, David Cobb, is not only a better leftie but also plans to run a "safe states" campaign that avoids the closest states, thereby preventing him from throwing a close election to the Republicans. Whatever lame arguments Nader uses to justify his existence in the campaign in relation to Bush and Kerry, they all completely collapse when faced with Cobb. However, are the tactics Democrats are using to try and keep Nader off the Arizona ballot, including enforcing laws that disenfranchise felons from participation in the political process in Arizona, a good idea? I say no way.

In 2000, at a mere 45.3%, Arizona had the lowest voter turnout as a percentage of the voting age population in the entire country. Arizona is also one of the fifteen states that denies franchise (PDF, p. 7) to ex-felons who are out prison, no longer on parole, and no longer on probation. Arizona's restrictive franchise laws are certainly one of the reasons for the extremely low voter turnout in the state. According to "Diminishing Voter Power in the Latino Community," (PDF, p. 12) a study by Marissa Demeo and Steven Ochoa, the disenfranchisement disproportionately affects Arizona's Latino population:

Another indicator that the Latino community is disproportionately affected by the restrictive Arizona felony disenfranchisement laws is that while Latinos make up 21.3% of the total voting age population and 15.07% of the total citizen voting age population, they made up 27.50% of the projected disenfranchised population. Arizona's laws do not only target Latinos. According to a 1998 study (PDF, p. 12) published by The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, 12.1% of Arizona's African-American males are disenfranchised. I have been unable to locate disenfranchisement rates in Arizona for the state's third largest ethnic group, Native Americans.

In total, by 2002, Demeo and Ochoa project that 161,744 citizen's of voting age population in Arizona were disenfranchised. According to Arizona census data and exit polls, without the impact of the felony disenfranchisement demographics described above, in Arizona Al Gore probably would have made up 28-29,000 votes on Bush among Latinos, and 12-13,000 on Bush among African Americans (not to mention several more thousand among Native Americans). While this would not have closed the entire 96,000-vote gap in the state, the total impact of felony disenfranchisement is at least equal to, and probably greater than, the 45,645 votes Nader received in the state in one election. It is also entirely possible that 2000 David Mendoza would have defeated Jeff Flake in AZ-1. Further, in 2002, a year without Nader, this probably led to the narrow victory of Republican Renzi in AZ-1 (5,600 votes), and made Napolitano's victory in the gubernatorial election far closer than it otherwise could have been.

The final two sentences form the key to my objection to anti-Nader Democratic tactics in Arizona. Nader is a transient problem, but felony disenfranchisement in the state is a long-term, chronic drain on the voting power of minorities and, by extension, the Democratic coalition. It is particularly unfortunate Democrats are using these tactics since a repeal of Arizona's restrictive franchise laws, such as the one New Mexico recently passed (PDF, p. 2), could be the final key to pushing Democrats over the hump in a state that has been trending Democrat (scroll to the chart at the bottom of the page) for the past two decades. However, now that Democrats have engaged in a political use of the felony disenfranchisement law, it becomes far more difficult, if not impossible, to engage in a successful campaign to repeal this state law in the near future.

For decades now, Republicans have used felony disenfranchisement laws to throw vast numbers of minorities out of the ranks of voters. This has slowly netted Republicans significant, long-term gains at the voting booth. In 2004, in an attempt to keep Nader off the ballot, Arizona Democrats are have given a de facto endorsement of those Republican state laws. Currently, in order to defeat the un-democratic Republican means of winning elections, Democrats are engaging in equally un-democratic means. "Good," many in the blogosphere will write upon hearing this, "we are no longer bringing knives to gun-fights." The problem I have with Democrats using these tactics (apart from being un-democratic and immoral) is that whatever their short-term benefit, over the long term they will serve to aid Republicans in Arizona to a far greater degree than they will benefit Democrats. We brought a gun to a gun-fight, and then handed it to our opponents who now outgun us in Arizona even more than before. In 2006, 2008, 2010 and beyond there will be no Nader in any Arizona elections, but there will still be tens of thousnds of disenfranchised ex-felons. Using the state felony disenfranchisement laws to keep Nader off the ballot is not just immoral--it's self-defeating over the long term.


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