This is a good day to reflect and look back (there's a winter advisory here in CT), as we move into the holidays and look to January 20th and beyond (is Bush still here? Damn.)
One of the hot topics of this election, and a perplexing one, was poll performance as a reflection of where the electorate's head was at. We know the polls did well, at least the final polls. From pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal:
How did the polls do last week? Quite well. While we worried about the many challenges, the telephone survey again defied the odds and delivered mostly accurate results.
We know that Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com and the algorithm at pollster.com, our go-to sites, performed well, as did our own R2K poll. For example, as of now the provisional popular vote is Obama 52.7 McCain 45.9, with more to count):
For this post, however, I'm going to concentrate on the pollster.com graph, because an ongoing discussion thoughout the latter part of September through election day was "Why aren't the pollsters all saying the same thing?".
It's a tough thing to accept some degree of uncertainty. If we have 95% confidence, that means that one out of every 20 polls might be a bit of an outlier. That's why we've gravitated to the polling aggregate sites (and learned to look at trends within a poll.) But at the same time, we can't hold snap elections in September and October to check our polling assumptions.
So how does this compare to previous elections? What's the norm? In mid-October, pollster David Moore addressed this in a post entitled Different Polls, Different Trends, in which he pointed out an observation from 2004:
All the results were well within the polls' margins of errors in comparison with the actual election results.
However, the interesting point is that during the month of September, these very same polls showed dramatically different dynamics. As shown in the next graph, there were three basic stories: ABC, Gallup, Time and ABC all showed Bush gaining momentum in the weeks following the Republican National Convention, and then falling toward the end of the month. Furthermore, although these pollsters all agreed with the general pattern, at the end of the month Gallup showed Bush with an 8-point lead, CBS and Time had him at one point, and ABC at 6 points.
The second story, reported by Fox, Zogby and TIPP, showed very little movement over the month of September, with the margin varying from a Kerry lead of one point to a Bush lead of three points.
Finally, Pew had its own dynamic, not found by any of the other polls, showing a significant surge for Bush after the convention, followed by a dramatic decline, then another significant surge.
Now we have data from AP to support the idea that in 2008 it wasn't so much the polls missing what the voters thought, it was that many of the voters couldn't decide.
Inch by inch, voter by voter, Barack Obama and John McCain labored for more than a year to lock down supporters and woo defectors. It turns out, though, that the nation's voters were a lot more fickle than commonly expected, and far more prone to switch allegiances.
An Associated Press-Yahoo News poll that tracked the same group of about 2,000 adults throughout the long campaign reveals a lively churning beneath the surface as people shifted their loyalties — some more than once.
More about voter behavior:
Those abandoning one candidate were often canceled out by others gravitating to him, resulting in little net change in the candidates' overall support. Yet the frenetic, beneath-the-radar movement helps explain why the two political parties spent hundreds of millions of dollars this year. They needed to constantly woo new supporters while keeping those they thought they already had from defecting.
Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard University political scientist who has studied voting behavior, said such movement has been especially pronounced lately. He cited Republican defections because of unhappiness with President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, uncertainty over which party could best address the economic meltdown and this year's influx of young and other first-time voters.
Now, if you're a fan of labels, you can look here (from Pew) about who calls themselves what.
Democrats, on balance, describe themselves as either liberal (34%) or moderate (37%) and the proportion labelling themselves as liberal has risen in recent years. Republicans, on the other hand, are not only largely conservative (68%) but, as their share of the electorate has declined somewhat, a higher proportion now say they are conservative than in the past. The ideological balance has been more stable among independents.
Yet, even within ideological groups there are disagreements over major issues. Liberals are divided in their views of offshore drilling -- 49% favor and 48% oppose allowing more oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters as a way to address America's energy needs.
Conservatives are about equally split when it comes to the U.S. government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens. Half of those who describe their political views as conservative favor government-backed insurance even if it means raising taxes, while 47% oppose it.
All of that is important in the context of deciding whether or not this really was 1932 and a realignment, or merely 1980 and a late-deciding "throw the bums out". From the WaPo, a story entitled Pollsters Debate America's Political Realignment:
Conservative analysts have insisted that although the Democrats achieved a sweeping victory, it does not indicate a fundamental change. "America is still a center-right country," as Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio, the House Republican leader, insisted soon after the votes were counted. Liberals call that argument nonsense. The election, wrote John B. Judis in the New Republic, heralds the arrival of "America the liberal," provided that the Democrats play their strong new hand effectively. This election was "the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 1990s, was delayed by September 11, and resumed with the 2006 election."
It's very likely the voters haven't decided, either. The potential is there, especially with younger voters who this year rejected Republicanism, giving Obama a historic 34 point advantage (usually the 18-29 year olds vote similarly or off by a few points relative to everyone else, but certainly gains were made across all age groups.) But deciding those things before Obama is even President yet still seems a bit premature. After all, fighting over the independent voter never goes out of style, and this year, that's the segment of the voter pool that really grew.
But any way you slice it, this remains an across-the board Dem-leaning electorate right now, with the middle (whatever it is defined as) reasserting itself.
First, the middle asserted itself. This was not a base election. Independents broke decisively for Obama, favoring him by a 52%-to-44% margin over John McCain. Obama also won an overwhelming 60% of self-identified moderates. By comparison, John Kerry carried 49% of independents and 54% of moderates four years ago.
Second, the political landscape shifted, mirroring pre-election polls that have shown increased Democratic party-affiliation since early 2006. While in 2004 the electorate was equally split along partisan lines, this year it was dramatically more Democratic (39% Democratic vs. 32% Republican).
Claims of this being a center-right country are nonsense. Policy-wise, we are a moderate-pragmatic nation. The trick is going to be to stay there, given that the middle is a moving target.