October 29, 2010

Lizardly Vindication: It's the Tumult of the Turnout!

Hatched by Dafydd

We've been somewhat vindicated -- not in our initial pessimistic post about the California governor's race, but in our subsequent retraction of pessimism; our conclusion now seems even stronger: What's driving the polls now in California is turnout modeling, not any actual "surge" by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

Take a look at the polling in the open gubernatorial race just this last week; I reordered the polls into descending leads of Democrat Brown over Republican Meg Whitman:

CA-Gov: Final week's polling through October 29th
Pollster Date range Results Brown lead
Field 10/14 - 10/26 B: 49 - W: 39 10
Fox News/POR-Rasmussen 10/23 B: 50 - W: 41 9
Suffolk 10/21 - 10/24 B: 50 - W: 42 8
SurveyUSA 10/21 - 10/25 B: 46 - W: 38 8
CNN/Time 10/20 - 10/26 B: 51 - W: 44 7
Rasmussen 10/27 B: 49 - W: 45 4

These polls were all taken more or less the same time -- yet they range from a 10-point lead for Brown to a 4-point lead; that's a six-point spread, from "likely Democrat victory" to "toss up."

The senatorial polls in California show the same pattern; these are also sorted by descending leads of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA, 100%) over Republican challenger Carly Fiorina:

CA-Sen: Final week's polling through October 29th
Pollster Date range Results Boxer lead
Suffolk 10/21 - 10/24 B: 52 - F: 43 9
Field 10/14 - 10/26 B: 49 - F: 41 8
SurveyUSA 10/21 - 10/25 B: 45 - F: 40 5
CNN/Time 10/20 - 10/26 B: 50 - F: 45 5
Fox News/POR-Rasmussen 10/23 B: 48 - F: 44 4
Rasmussen 10/27 B: 49 - F: 46 3

These also range across a six-point spread, from Boxer + 9 ("likely Democratic victory") to Boxer + 3 ("toss up"), within the margin of error (or as Mark Steyn calls is, "the margin of lawyer").

In the gubernatorial race, there are four polls that show very large leads: Field, Fox News, Suffolk, and SurveyUSA; CNN/Time has a middling lead; and Rasmussen shows a very narrow lead. In the Senate race, Suffolk and Field still show the highest leads; SurveyUSA and CNN/Time show middling leads; and Fox News and Rasmussen show a very narrow lead. Note that the only poll that shows a marked difference in position between the two races is the Fox News poll; all others are fairly close... which points to something internal to these polls that causes them to spread so wide.

I believe that "something" is the turnout model used. Field and Suffolk clearly both use the model that assumes the Democrats' advantage in California this year will be just as big as (or even bigger than!) their 12-point advantage in the banner Democratic year of 2008. Equally clearly, Rasmussen uses a turnout model that looks more like 2006 and 2004, when the Democratic advantage was only 6 points, not 12. And I would guess that Suffolk and CNN/Time use something in between.

(I'm not sure why the Fox News poll was one point above the lowest poll in the senatorial race, but one point below the highest poll in the gubernatorial race. Maybe Bill O'Reilly conducted the former, while Juan Williams conducted the latter.)

More than ever, I am convinced that the polls in California are being driven more by disparate turnout models than by any other factor; and more than ever, I believe that the proper turnout model this year should give even less of an advantage to Democrats than their +6 in 2006 and 2004.

What's different this time than in those two earlier elections? Four major factors:

  • Democrats are disspirited.
  • Republicans are enthusiastic.
  • A Republican tidal wave will begin in the East and move west towards California; as it looms, Republican victories will likely discourage Democrats from voting -- as happened in 1980, when media broadcasts called the election for Ronald Reagan and reported that Jimmy Carter had already prepared his concession speech, while the West-Coast polls were still open; and as happened in reverse in 2000, when Voter News Service falsely called Florida for Al Gore while the polls were still open in the heavily Republican Florida Panhandle.
  • And polls consistently show the GOP poised for huge gains in the U.S. Congress -- R + 50-60 in the House and R + 8-10 in the Senate.

Under those circumstances, Republicans should have significantly better relative turnout than in 2006 and 2004, years in which the Republicans either lost seats (D + 31 in the House and D + 6 in the Senate in 2006), or made only slight gains (R + 3 in the House and R + 4 in the Senate in 2004).

I reject the implied claim that California, unique among all the states, is the only one where this is a Democratic wave election; the only thing that might produce such an outcome would be a terrible scandal involving the GOP; but since they've been out of power for basically decades, and since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn't done anything horrifying lately, there has been no recent scandal.

Therefore, the proper turnout model would probably have the Democrats' turnout advantage being more like +3 or +4, not +6, not +12, and most assuredly not +14! If we recalculated those polls using the most likely turnout model, Meg Whitman would be neck and neck with Jerry Brown (down by 2 points, maybe) in the governor's race -- and Carly Fiorina would be slightly ahead of Barbara Boxer in the Senate race.

It could just be my wishful thinking, but I doubt it; the polling in California has smelt like day-old sushi for weeks now.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, October 29, 2010, at the time of 4:12 PM

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The following hissed in response by: MarkJM

I agree with your premise. Hmmmm. Perhaps a 'contest' to guess number of REP seats won in House and Senate? The prize being some lizardly pride thingyamabob. I believe people who haven't voted for decades are going to cast ballots this election, and they won't be voting for communism! 87H 12S

The above hissed in response by: MarkJM [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 29, 2010 7:56 PM

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