Who do the conservatives favor in Summer 2015?

The Gallup Poll has released some data today that challenges what I had believed to be true about the support that various candidates receive from the most conservative Republican voters. Of the 16 declared candidates, the one that receives the highest level of favorability is Marco Rubio (74 percent), despite the fact that he has expressed views on immigration in the past that have upset Tea Party advocates. I was not surprised to see Ted Cruz with a high level of favorability (70 percent), and the high levels garnered by Perry, Huckabee, and Trump were also not surprising. However, despite his anti-union activity and his commitment to many conservative social issues, Scott Walker (at what is still a high favorability at 65 percent) has not reaped the relative advantage that I would have expected.

That Christie (36 percent), Kasich (35 percent), Graham (28 percent), and Pataki (17 percent) have relatively low favorability ratings from the most conservative is also not a surprise, although we can ascribe some of Pataki’s and Kasich’s ratings to the fact that they also have relatively low familiarity among conservative Republicans.

In Gallup’s report, Frank Newport develops a “power ranking” for the candidates among very conservative Republicans; Rubio, Cruz, Perry, Trump, Huckabee, Walker, and Carson all comprise the top tier, which bodes well for these candidates after Iowa and New Hampshire, where conservatives will begin dominating the state primaries.  Newport also reminds us that these rankings are based on a relatively small sample, so the margin of error is larger than normal, although the report does not present the confidence intervals for these rankings.

Political Parties in Vermont: a more competitive environment than commonly recognized

In a paper delivered at the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) national conference in May, 2011, Jeffrey Jones of the Gallup Organization presented a paper on party affiliation at the state level. Jones utilized the Gallup Poll’s robust daily tracking data to examine changes in how voters report their partisan affiliation over years. He writes, “Though party affiliation does not change greatly at the aggregate level, there are clearly noticeable shifts. These shifts usually come in response to real-world events that typically favor one party or the other. Often they are the result of one party falling out of favor with many Americans due to its perceived handling of major issues facing the country, such as Watergate, the economy, or the impeachment of Bill Clinton.” In his 2011 AAPOR paper, Jones found shifts in every state trend Republican after the 2008 election right through 2010.

Vermont is seen generally as a solid blue state. Gallup’s data shows Vermont to be the seventh most Democratic state (8th if we include the District of Columbia) in terms of the percentage of adults who identify with the Democratic Party versus those who identify with the Republican Party. In Vermont, Gallup’s 2011 daily tracking data found a 15.8 percentage point advantage for the Democrats over the Republicans; this counts both those who say that they identify with one party and those who lean toward one of the two major parties.

As Vermont votes for federal offices, the picture appears solidly blue. Vermont has favored the Democratic candidate for president since 1992, and its at-large congressional seat has been occupied by Bernie Sanders (while Independent, caucuses with the Democrats) and Peter Welch since 1991. Democrat Patrick Leahy has occupied one of the two U.S. Senate seats since the mid-seventies, and the other seat was occupied by a Republican until Senator James Jeffords left that party in 2001. Jeffords’ dramatic switch from Republican to Independent may be more a reflection of the changes in the national party than in partisanship in Vermont. While the national Republican Party has moved further to the right, Vermont’s Republicans appear far more moderate, particularly on social issues.
But how Vermont voters align with the national parties may not carry over into intra-state contests.

Of course, Vermont’s longer history is as a solid Republican state. When Stephan Royce became Vermont’s first Republican governor in 1854, he ushered in a century of Republican leadership in the state. In Presidential contests for 100 years, from 1860 to 1964, Vermont’s electoral votes went to the Republican candidate. No Democrat served as Vermont’s chief executive until Philip Hoff narrowly beat F. Ray Keyser, Jr. in 1962. In the 50 years since Hoff’s victory, Democrats have occupied Vermont’s highest office 29 years and Republicans 21 years—a fairly balanced mix.
In 2010, Democrat Peter Schumlin beat his Republican challenger, Brian Dubie, by only 4,331 votes (less than 2 percent of the total votes cast). Dubie carried 7 of Vermont’s 14 counties (6 of these by wide margins), but aside from Rutland, Dubie did best in the state’s smaller counties, while Schumlin won in Chittendon county (the largest county by far) with a margin of nearly 7 percentage points.

Consequently, while the nation may see Vermont as solidly blue, the two major parties are likely to remain competitive in state-wide elections. While the national Republican Party may have defined itself in such a way that Vermonters are—on the average—likely to favor Democrats for federal offices, the Vermont Republican party is still healthy and likely to remain very competitive.

Musings about the Republican presidential nomination race

Despite the large, crowded field of candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, it is very possible that the ultimate choice has not yet officially entered the race. While the story for the Democratic nomination race is about challenges to the inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, the story on the Republican side is a wide-open race, with no inevitability despite some of the high profile Governors and Senators in the race.

The great challenge for the Republican candidates is to appeal to Republican primary voters without alienating or upsetting independent voters in swing states. In other words, it is more difficult for a candidate with deep appeal to Republican Party conservatives to position themselves on major policy issues where they are likely to appeal to a majority of general election voters. Recognizing this dilemma, Jeb Bush has proposed running a primary campaign that is no different from a general election strategy; in this vein, his policy positions have tended to be more moderate in the area of immigration, and he has demonstrated on many occasion his bi-lingual skills. On the other hand, Scott Walker has vowed to hold true to conservative principals and not moderate his views for a national audience.

At this time, the Real Clear Politics polling averages, at the national level, show Bush, with only 15 percent, holding a slight lead over the rest of the pack, but Donald Trump has seen a surge in recent polls by CNN and Fox News. Every candidate in this crowded field needs to separate themselves from the pack somehow; for Trump, his resume alone separates him from a long list of governors (current and former) and senators, but he has also made some inflammatory statements that have served to keep him the focus of major media outlets, for good or ill. For the other candidates, the debates may provide them the opportunity to set themselves apart from the field, provided that they make the cut to appear in debates.

While I am an avid followers of the polls, I’m not sure that the polling data have much to offer at this time in terms of predicting who the Republican nominee will be. If one factors margins of errors in the estimates, there may be several candidates with a lead among likely Republican primary voters. So we need to consider what other factors may allow a candidate to continue their bids for the nomination after Iowa and New Hampshire (and then again after South Carolina and Nevada). The silent primary—funds raised from contributors—is one data point that will separate the candidates. Although Jeb Bush leads the pack in the total raised to this point, Scott Walker has not been a candidate, officially, and has not had to declare. Of those who were declared candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are just behind Bush. Apart from fund-raising, we can assess the networks built and the national reputation of the candidates. Based on this, I predict that Bush, Cruz, Rubio, Rand Paul, John Kasich, and Walker will still be viable candidates after the Nevada caucus. It’s likely that a few of the middle-tier candidates will also still be running, such as Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry. Consequently, the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary will not likely have the winnowing effect that they’ve had in the past. It’s going to be a long ride.


A quick methodological note:

The horse race question in the CNN/ORC poll read, “I’m going to read a list of people who may be running in the Republican primaries for president in 2016. After I read all the names, please tell me which of those candidates you would be most likely to support for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, or if you would support someone else. Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump or Scott Walker.” Of course, keeping with best practices, the order of the candidates’ names were randomized, but even with this, there has to be some concern for the recency effect—the propensity to choose the last option from a long list because it is the easiest to recall.

Aren’t there too many surveys?

Far too often, the vicious circles we encounter are of our own making. For instance, imagine the child who says to the parent, “This food is disgusting,” and the parent responding, “Well, I’m not going to put a lot of time into making a dinner you’re not going to eat.” The child does not like the hastily prepared meals that result, and the parent who witnesses the child’s continued dissatisfaction is not incentivized to prepare anything more appetizing.

This is the case in survey research today. We develop surveys too quickly, and send them out untested, and then we bemoan poor response rates. Potential survey respondents are inundated with surveys asking for their views on every matter under the sun, and people do not see the connection between survey response and improvement in those areas that are the subject of surveys. Researchers cannot draw adequate inferences from low rates of return, and the respondents don’t reply because they don’t see adequate inferences being drawn. And the circle continues.

But there is a way out of the vicious circle.

First, stop doing so many surveys. Survey research is riddled with systematic error, and while it is easy to do a survey, it is very difficult to do one well. If one could obtain data from sources other than survey respondents—e.g. administrative records, subject observations, or historical records—then the conduct of a survey is not only poor methodology, it is wasting the time of survey respondents.

Second, we need to show more respect for our survey subjects. We do this by honoring their time and efforts through making carefully constructed survey instruments that are pre-tested before going out, and we make full use of the data so that the time taken to complete a survey is not in vain.

Third, take time to learn the best practices in survey research before soliciting survey responses. We are not spending enough time considering both what it is precisely that we need to learn and how we will work with the data once the data collection is completed. We should have those decisions made before we start to develop a survey instrument.

If we can (a) reduce the number of surveys, (b) reduce the level of burden placed upon survey respondents, and (c) make it clear how the data will be useful and fully considered, then we may have an argument to make to those who don’t respond to our surveys. The culture of survey response, however, will not change until the culture of those conducting surveys does.

Musings on the Democratic presidential nomination race

On July 2, 2015, Jim Webb declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was not surprising that Webb jumped into the race; it was speculated upon for some time. What surprised me, however, was the level of media attention that Webb’s announcement received. Webb is a former Secretary of the Navy and US Senator, yet his announcement receive far less attention than announcements from Donald Trump or Mike Huckabee.

Webb brings another dimension to the race for the Democratic nomination. He is a moderate ideologically, falling to the right of Hillary Clinton. He also, like Clinton, has foreign policy and national security credentials. Webb’s entrance to the nomination race gives Democratic voters a wider array of choices in the caucuses and primaries. In my estimation, the Democrats now offer a more varied set of candidates on the ideological spectrum than do Republicans.

On another front, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is working to undermine the campaign of Bernie Sanders. O’Malley was supposed to be the alternative to the inevitability of Clinton’s shot at the nomination, but instead, Sanders has filled that space. While Sanders has surged in recent polls—Quinnipiac has Sanders running only 19 points behind Clinton among likely Iowa caucus participants—O’Malley has not registered above 3 percent in Iowa or nationally. So it appears that O’Malley’s strategy at this point is to attack Sanders in order to replace the Vermont Senator as the alternative to Clinton.

In a July 3, 2015, Washington Post article, O’Malley equated the popularity of Sanders to that of Trump, suggesting that they both reflect frustration among the electorate. Putting aside Sanders’ success in fundraising from a broad base and that Sanders is drawing large crowds whereas Trump had to hired extras for his announcement speech, Sanders has emerged as a serious candidate while Trump has not. In addition, O’Malley’s suggestion that Sanders is a protest candidate needs to be considered. What is a protest candidate? Was Obama a protest candidate in 2008? Was Jimmy Carter a protest candidate in 1976, when the public turned to a man who seemed authentic and honest in a time when trust in the presidency was a low point.

If Sanders is a protest candidate, as O’Malley suggests, what is O’Malley?

Whereas, for the Republicans, the challenge is to find a candidate that will satisfy the Republican base while having broad-enough appeal to the overall electorate, the challenge for the Democrats is to find the candidate that will generate the energy and excitement to bring Hispanics and younger voters to the polls in November 2016.