Friday, October 03, 2008

The Right Target

All the talk this morning is about the VP debate last night. There’s all kinds of places where you can get details on what was said, how many times Biden lied through his painted teeth, and what the ‘instant poll’ or ‘focus group’ said immediately afterward, so you don’t need me for that. What I am writing about today, is something a bit more intricate, and yet I think important to the race remaining.

My wife wanted to see the debate on CBS, so we got to hear what Ms. Couric thought of it. I don’t usually have much respect for the opinion of Ms. Couric, but she made a good observation, though she did not carry it through to its significant conclusion. Kouric said that Governor Palin was speaking to Senator Biden, the moderator, the audience, and the television viewers, while Senator Biden, in Couric’s words, was “speaking as if Palin was not even there”. That is, Biden was trying to drive home attacks on McCain and pressing his points about the Obama campaign directly to the home viewers. Biden and Palin were going after different target audiences. My hunch is that both nominees accomplished their tactical goals, but only one of them chose the right target.

It’s easy to get caught up in minute details of the election, but it’s critically important to understand how a candidate builds up support. It does not, despite what you may have read or seen or heard, happen in great waves or sudden bursts of enthusiasm. And most people who have made up their mind to support a candidate, do not quickly or casually change their mind. The publicly released polls are not accurate in the image created, that the voters are flighty and chaotic. Quite the opposite, if history is considered.

With firmer facts in hand, we can simply say that the race remains in doubt, because a portion of the voters have not made up their mind. They may well lean towards McCain or to Obama, but there is a portion which has decided and cannot easily be convinced to change their opinion, and there is a small portion which will not make a choice and so will sit out this election, but there is also a significant portion remaining, who are still waiting for a candidate to convince them to give their vote to that candidate. And so it is happening, small pieces at a time, and along the way the candidates may well not be certain themselves about just how much support they have in certain key places. This is true in many states, where the race is close enough that a well-focused effort could make all the difference.

Without overdoing the numbers, it is safe to say that most Democrats are supporting or will support Obama, and that most Republicans are supporting or will support McCain. There are, in the end, just three groups in play:

Republicans unsure about McCain-Palin, and Independents leaning towards McCain, but still not locked in, a group of about 2.9% of voters;

Democrats still uncomfortable with Obama-Biden (including the PUMAs), and Independents leaning towards Obama, but still not committed, a group of about 3.6% of voters; and

The pure Independants, who will not vote or who will go for a minor candidate unless McCain or Obama convinces them they deserve their vote, a group of about 8.0% of voters.

Palin spoke to the undecideds, while Biden spoke to his base. Guess which mission was more important to this election?

UPDATE – How the Math Was Done

Some folks are curious as to how I got my numbers for undecideds. I got them from the internal party affiliation results from the three major polls in the past month which have published them.

Gallup, CBS, and Fox News all publish the internal party-identified support in their internal data. When you take out the support for Obama, McCain, and ‘Other’, what’s left is your undecideds. When you consider that the poll starts with registered or ‘likely’ voters, that’s pretty significant. When you plug the undecideds back in for each group, multiplying by their proportion of the population, the result is that undecided sub-group’s portion of the total voting population. So, taking the numbers from each of the three polls, and averaging them together, I get the numbers I used for today’s article.

Now, I have to admit that the actual number could be a little higher or lower than I claimed, for three reasons. First, since the three polls differed in their numbers (though not greatly), averaging them may lessen the accuracy of the analysis. Of course, I have no way to say which of the three is the ‘most reliable’, so averaging them is the best course to acknowledging all of them to an equal degree. Second, folks who do not make up their mind by the election may just not vote at all. I do not think this is very likely, however, because at a minimum these are voters who have registered, and who show some interest in the election as evidenced by their participation in the poll. So I believe these people are valid respondents, representing an actual demographic whose importance to the election is growing as we move ahead. And third, while I do try to be objective in analysis, as a human being I impose some subjectivity into my opinions, even when I try to avoid it, and certain assumptions were made in developing the template. On the other hand, while we all have biases, awareness of such bias, open acknowledgement of the bias and attempts to test for and correct against material flaws in the work, and the evidence from past tests using similar assumptions lead me to believe that I have produced a valid model.


Pam said...

DJ, when can we expect some new polling data? When do you think we might see a bounce, if any, for the Palin debate?

Oink said...

Bounce!? Really? I realize that the owner of this site is asking all readers on the right to put their fingers in their ears and sing "I can't hear you!" in reference to all the recent polls that have come out.

However, I'm surprised that anybody that reads this or similar blogs would assume because Palin did a good job (yes I think she did) that somehow, that would change the trend of this race. Because while I believe Palin did her job of reassuring conservatives that she's an intelligent person, I also know that Biden did more than his job of showing voter's that he is the most qualified Vice President candidate in 20 years.

As DJ knows, Vice Presidential candidates don't traditionally change races (Ferraro, Bentsen, Kemp, Qualye, Lieberman, Edwards, etc.). Yes Palin is a different candidate but the historical facts remain that VP's are not game changers...that McCain was hoping to change that shows the level of his plight!

I'll agree with DJ that this race is far from over but the trends of this race are clear. But don't take my word for it, I think McCain's concede of Michigan is more than telling.

Paul_In_Houston said...

Pam: before you get TOO discouraged by oink's comment, note that he devoted NOT ONE WORD to DJ's analysis of the weighting methods (particularly dynamic weighting) used in these polls.

If he so wishes, he can find it in DJ's other posting here, and in some of his comments.

On the other hand, if an accusation of 'asking all readers on the right to put their fingers in their ears and sing "I can't hear you!" in reference to all the recent polls that have come out.' is all he has, further argument is pointless.

I have no idea how good McCain's strategy is, but I DO have faith that he has one, and that it is based on the fact that whatever polls may say now, it is that little formality on Nov 4th that really matters.

Bottom line, no matter WHAT the polls say between now and then, for God's sake do not give up. Go and vote anyway!

I still remember the 1980 election, hearing ON ELECTION DAY "Too close to call", and dreading the possibility of another 4 years of the peanut. And then, after that agony of worry, to watch the tidal wave for Reagan sweeping in.

Again, don't lose faith. That is precisely what a lot of these polls are commissioned for and weighted to accomplish; to discourage us so we just give up and stay home.

Well, sorry democrats! We've consistently had a better record of actually showing up and voting than you have, and that will be the case here.

Have a nice day.

Oink said...

First off, let me say I greatly appreciate and respect DJ's is in fact the main (if not only) reason that I visit this site.

Secondly, you won't ever hear me saying that this race is over, because like many that have posted here, I believe that one month is a life time in politics. I know that each day is a potential game changer and only on November 5th can any of us be certain of the outcome.

Thirdly, in my opinion, polls are only a barometer of the race. I also know that the agencies that run them usually are unbiased, and must have a "clean" reputation in order to continue to be in business. That doesn't mean they are always right or always weighted properly, it just means if they wish to remain in the business making money then they need to be as accurate as possible. And I certainly don't believe there is some grand conspiracy among the pollsters to get one party in office over another. I do however believe that the CNN's and Fox New's of the world benefit from a close, and especially closely watched race, and if you notice the headlines you will see that most new organizations promote a tight race over one candidate pulling away. If there is no drama, watchers don't watch, if watchers don't watch, ads don't cost as much, so on and so on.

And lastly when you look at 2004/2006 demographics, I believe that Mr. Drummond is not terribly far off base. But that's only if you choose to ignore those facts that have occured in the past 21 months...

Since the 2006 elections and thru August 2008, demographics have changed. In the 28 states that register according to party affiliation the Democrats have ADDED over 2.1 million voters to their rolls while Republicans have LOST over 350,000 voters (nearly 2.5 million voter change) in the same states. States that include Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, as well as many heavily Democratic and many heavily Republican states. In addition the number of independent voters have dropped by nearly a million voters since 2006 as well. This is not a poll, this is neither a guess nor opinion, these are voter registration numbers from the Secretary of States of said 28 states. If this is a trend, then one would wonder what the status of the other 22 states is.

I have done the math and know how these changes will effect this race, but I make no predictions...I can only say "tune in Wednesday November 5th for the results show!"