Preparing for Super Tuesday

On March 1st, 2016, Town Meeting Day in the Green Mountain State, Vermonters will cast their ballots in the Democratic or Republican primary races. In addition, 12 other states will make their preferences known—a total of five caucuses and nine primaries. It’s Super Tuesday, the first official date to kick off the nominating process for the parties, with exception made for the first four states.

On the Republican side, 641 delegates are up from grabs on Super Tuesday, making up 26 percent of the total delegate count.

For the Democrats, 907 pledged delegates will be allocated, making up 22 percent of the pledged delegates and 19 percent of the total number of delegates, pledged and unpledged.

States to vote on Super Tuesday:

  • Alabama, Primary
  • Alaska, Caucus
  • Arkansas, Primary
  • Colorado, Caucus
  • Georgia, Primary
  • Massachusetts, Primary
  • Minnesota, Caucus
  • North Dakota, Caucus
  • Oklahoma, Primary
  • Tennessee, Primary
  • Texas, Primary
  • Vermont, Primary
  • Virginia, Primary
  • Wyoming, Caucus

In Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders has a lock on the Democratic side. The VPR Poll has, Sanders with 78 percent among likely Democratic primary voters (MoE +/- 5%) and Clinton with 13 percent; nine percent said they were not sure. Vermont likely Republican voters (MoE +/- 9%) favor Donald Trump (33 percent); 15 percent favor Marco Rubio, and 14 percent favor Ohio Governor John Kasich. Twelve percent of likely Republican voters remained unsure.

Tracking the presidential primary preferences in Vermont since the VPR Poll did not detect any change in support in either Party. While New Hampshire appeared to affect Vermonter’s preferences, there is no indication that Nevada or South Carolina have had comparable effects. Sanders’ win in New Hampshire seemed to shore up some support, but not a great deal more than he had before that primary victory. Most Sanders voters were going to support their senator no matter what happened in New Hampshire.

The effect of New Hampshire in the Republican side is seen in the figure below.

Figure 1. Impact of New Hampshire Primary on Vermont Likely Republican Primary Voters’ Preferences

What is “Likely” and “Unlikely” in Polling

The recent VPR poll was conducted like any other general population public opinion poll. The largest sampling frame for telephone was utilized—in this case, a dual-frame sample of landline and cell phone numbers—and the data were weighted to reflect U.S. Census estimates for Vermont’s adult population on age and gender. In addition, the data were also weighted to reflect the county-level populations proportionately.

All of the data related to issues, job performance ratings, and the 2016 Vermont gubernatorial were weighted to reflect the views of the general population. During data collection, the Polling Institute works the sample to achieve the highest response rates possible given time and budget constraints, and in the end, the general population weights are relatively small and do not distort the original data a great deal.

The data reflecting preferences in the upcoming Vermont presidential primary are weighted to reflect the population of likely voters in each of the party’s primary. Weighting the general population is far easier than weighting to likely voters because we have hard data from the Census Bureau describing the general population. The general population actually exists at the time of the poll; this is not the case when considering likely voters. The voting population does not yet exist; there are no pre-existing measure of who what citizens (or poll respondents) will actually cast a ballot on March 1 (or before by absentee ballot).

Weighting to the voting population is weighting to a population that is still speculative. That is why we refer to likely voters as opposed to actual voters. But if we want to estimate what voters may do on election day, we have to recognize that the entire adult population does not vote, and in a primary, the proportion of voters will be lower than that found in a general election.

So, we develop a separate weight to help us understand what voters may do on March 1 as they cast their votes in the presidential primaries. The formula we used to estimate the voting population for the upcoming primary started with eliminating the views of those poll respondents we think are unlikely to vote at all; consequently, we built a model (using a second data set) that excluded all of those respondents who

  1. Are not registered to vote;
  2. Do not follow news about the presidential race either “very closely” or “somewhat closely”; and,
  3. Say that they are either “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to vote in the Vermont Presidential Primary.

Using that criteria, we eliminated 258 actual respondents (unweighted), bringing us to an unweighted base of 637 records or 71 percent of the original data set. We then worked with those remaining records to devise a variable that would give greater weight to those respondents among those remaining who are most likely to vote in the presidential primaries, since we know that turnout will not be as high as 71 percent. In fact, we estimate that turnout will be from 40 – 45 percent of registered voters.
In order to differentiate among the remaining respondents who are most likely to vote, we gave points to respondents meeting the following conditions:

  1. Follow news about the election “very closely”
  2. Say that they are “very likely to vote”
  3. Identify with one of the major political parties
  4. Have a college degree or more education
  5. Responded to poll after the New Hampshire Primary (Feb. 9th)

These criteria were used to generate weights for each individual case that were then applied to the general population weights to devise a new weight variable defining our “likely voter model.” The first two criteria take what respondents tell us about their interest in the election and how likely they are to participate, while criteria 3 and 4 apply data from the demographics that are associated with voting participation. The last criterion takes into account that candidate preference shifted measurably after the New Hampshire primary showed that Trump and Sanders can win and that Kasich may be more of a contender than earlier thought.

Applying the likely voter model to the reduced data set left us with a dataset that represents 58 percent of the originally weighted sample—a figure higher than our voter turnout estimation but weighted to give those within the remaining sample who meet likely voter criteria a greater weighted response.

The estimates for how Vermont would vote if the election were held during the time we were in the field are shown in the following two figures:

Figure 1. Vermont 2016 GOP Presidential Primary Preferences, based on a likely voter model


Figure 2. Vermont 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary Preferences, based on a likely voter model

Here’s Looking at You, South Carolina

Billionaire and Republican candidate Donald Trump took all of the 44 delegates at stake in the February 20, 2016 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina. Trump’s victory was projected early in the evening, yet the media continued to closely follow the returns to ask, “who took second place?” They also may have asked, “who did not get any delegates,” or “who, between two candidates in a near tie, barely edged out the other to gain no delegates?” (See previous blog posts.)

So I asked in a tweet, “What does it matter at this point who takes second place?” One response I received was that it mattered to Bill Clinton, who rode a second place finish in New Hampshire in 1992 to become the nominee. Clinton in 1992 is, in fact, a perfect case in point. The media set the expectations for candidates, and then when candidates surpass those expectations, the media praise the candidates for doing better than we thought they should. Rather than accepting that the expectations were misguided, the media suggest that the candidates have excelled. So a second place finish becomes a victory.

And in the 2016 South Carolina Republican Primary, three candidates gave victory speeches despite the fact that only one of them won any of the state’s 44 pledged delegates. Trump had a plurality in each of the state’s congressional districts as well as a plurality state-wide, and the winner-take-all at the district level meant that there were no delegates to be had for a second-place finish. Yet Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both made speeches that sounded triumphant, and the media remained intently interested in which one of these two would edge out the other when all votes were counted.


Because the narrative has to be written in broad strokes and cannot accept a little bit of nuance that would suggest such a narrow margin is indicative of no larger trend. Just look at the New York Times report on the outcome; without a narrative, it’s hard to care who is in second place.

Perhaps if we saw these contests more from the voters’ perspective than from the candidates’ points of view, we could recognize that while a plurality of South Carolina voters, evenly distributed throughout the state, favor the outsider candidacy of Donald Trump, the remaining voters—making up a majority in total—are not settled on any candidate, and both Rubio and Cruz are about equally attractive to the GOP primary voters.

Adieu to Jeb!

Having spent so much air time, twitter time, and ink on the 0.2 percentage points separating Rubio and Cruz, the media hardly mentioned that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who suspended his campaign last night, edged out Kasich and Carson by margins not much different than that between the two senators.

Everything has Changed Upon the Death of Antonin Scalia

The United States Supreme Court building

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will inevitably have a major impact on the 2016 presidential race. Given that so many Court decisions have been made by a 5-4 division of the Justices and that Justice Scalia is the conservative intellectual leader of the bench, the balance of the Court is now in play.

Scenario One:

President Obama nominates a candidate and the Republican-led Senate confirms the nomination. For this unlikely scenario to play out, the nomination would be a consensus candidate, which—like the Yeti and the Lock Ness Monster—are fun to imagine but may not exist in reality.

Scenario Two:

President Obama nominates a candidate and the Senate does not move to confirm. This scenario is very likely, kicking the can down the street to the next administration. The Republicans in the Senate have no incentive to give the Court over to the other side, and are likely to wait and see if the Republican presidential nominees wins in November. Even if the GOP nominee loses the race for the White House, the Republicans have lost nothing in terms of the Supreme Court that they wouldn’t have lost otherwise. The Senate can then consider if Obama’s nominee is likely to be better or worse than the nominee they are likely to get when the next president takes office.

Either way, future debates, stump speeches, and votes will likely focus on the new political landscape. After all, presidents only hold office for 4 years—eight years if they are fortunate—but a federal justice could shape the U.S. government for three to four decades.

Fewer Candidates, but the Same Story

Here is a brief post wherein I double down on my conviction that the presidential nomination races, in both parties, are simply a race to amass a majority of delegates, not a series of beauty contests with the objective of revealing to the party faithful which candidate is the most electable in the general election. Let’s be clear that when party leaders chose the nominees and very few delegates were determined by the primaries, the old narrative fit. But the nature of the caucuses and primaries have changed, and the conventions have become the time where the awards of the state-level contests are handed out—not a time to consider what happened in the states and then make a choice. The choices have been made by the time of the conventions.

So in the Republican nomination battle, the number of candidates have winnowed from an unwieldy 17 down to a manageable six (with the recent departure of Jim Gilmore, former Governor of swing state Virginia, who not only was never invited to participate in a major debate but also was excluded from the so-called undercard debates). Despite the reduced number of players, the same fissures remain: there are the outsiders (Trump and Carson), the candidate who where’s the “conservative” label while attacking the party structure (Cruz), and the candidates who are fighting for the party establishment (Rubio, Bush, and Kasich).

On the Democratic side, it has always been a the inevitable (Clinton) against the outsider (Sanders)—reform versus revolution. In the minds of many on the Democratic party’s periphery, it is the competent but untrustworthy candidate with the right resume versus the authentic, idealistic champion of those who are not among the party elite. So Sanders wins support among Vermont voters, while all of Vermont’s highest-level elected officials throw their support behind Clinton.

For both parties, these are the conflicts that were extant at the start of the nomination race, and they remain today. This does not change until one candidate can eliminate the representative of one of the major fissures of conflict. Until then, it’s all about collecting delegates.

Has New Hampshire really changed anything?

With the New Hampshire Primaries behind us, 2.1 percent of the GOP delegates and 1.7 percent of the pledged Democratic delegates have been allocated—so only 97.9 and 98.3 percent, respectively, to go.

The race to nominate the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees has only just begun, and it is not clear that either party is close to settling on a single candidate.

Even after the 14 contests (states) on Super Tuesday, March 1st, only a third of the Republican delegates and less than a quarter of the Democratic delegates will have been allocated. It is not until the March 15th states vote—including the large swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio—that a majority of the GOP delegates will have been allocated, but unless some candidate comes out to dominate that race, it is still unlikely that any candidate will have sewn up the nomination by that time. On the Democratic Party side, while a majority of the pledged delegates will have been awarded by the end of March 15th, only 47 percent of the overall delegates will have been awarded. The unpledged delegates (Super Delegates) on the Democratic side, being 15 percent of the total, will line up behind a candidate on their own timeline and can always change their minds throughout the process.

All this is to say that the process of securing the nomination is a long haul, a marathon and not a sprint, and all of the contenders still have a lot of running to do.

Delegate Counts by Date
Number of Convention Delegates Allocated for Each Party by Date

Project 240 Mock Primary Results

On February 9, 2016, Project 240 (a collaboration between the Paramount Theatre and Castleton University), hosted a Mock Primary designed to coincide with the New Hampshire primary.  Those in attendance were treated to a showing of the 1960 documentary Primary, including commentary and discussion by Castleton faculty Michael Talbott and Rich Clark, a discussion by Senator Pollina about the date of Vermont’s primary, a presentation of student-collected data about the political process gathered by Assistant Professor Jennifer Turchi’s Sociology Research Methods class, and an opportunity for everyone in attendance to cast a ballot in the Project 240 Mock Primary.

Votes were tallied and presented during the event. Here is a summary of the Project 240 Mock Primary results:

  • A total of 89 votes were cast with 63 attendees selecting the Democratic ballot and 26 selecting the Republican ballot.
  • Bernie Sanders won the Democratic vote.
Project 240 Mock Primary Democratic Results
Project 240 Mock Primary Democratic Results
  • In a close race on the Republican side, John Kasich won the mock primary by one vote over Donald Trump.
Project 240 Mock Primary Republican Results
Project 240 Mock Primary Republican Results

The next Project 240 event will be on February 28th with a fantastic evening of music.  Two more primary debates are on the Project 240 schedule on March 9th and 10th. (For more information go to:  We hope you’ll join us for these great community events as we make our way through the election season!

Pre-Primary Polls in New Hampshire & Generally

Some diners settle on a menu item right away, knowing exactly what they want to eat, while others wait to make their decision when waiter starts taking orders. This is not new; it is human nature.

Polls are a snapshot of public opinion as it exists when the calls are made. In fact, the typical horse-race question begins, “If the election were held today, who would you vote for …” asking the respondent not for whom they will eventually vote but for whom they would vote if the election were right now. Of course, pollsters add questions to measure the likelihood of one’s changing their mind, and we see in New Hampshire that the possible of changing one’s mind is rather high. But just as some who have an idea of what they want to eat may eventually order something different on a whim, it is likely that such behavior happens in the voting booth as well, although probably not in the majority of cases.

Pollsters, political activists, and reporters work in a bubble where everyone around them is intensely focused on the upcoming campaign, but most Americans have only a fleeting interest in politics and do not spend much time assessing the options long before it is time to vote, despite our wishes that they did.

This is far less common in general elections, where one as partisan identifications as cues for whom to support, than in primaries, where all of the candidates are of one party. The costs of acquiring adequate information about candidates is much higher in primaries than in general elections, thus one’s choice is far less pre-determined.

All of this makes it very difficult to predict the outcome of a primary election, even with the best of polling.

The difference between being a pollster and a pundit is that the former are actually held accountable for their pre-election assessments.

The Iowa Polls

Philip Bump of The Washington Post wrote a column titled, “Why were the Iowa polls so wrong?” (February 2, 2016, The Fix) and on the same day, Mark Blumenthal and Jon Cohen had a Huffington Post blog titled, “Were The Iowa Polls Wrong? Maybe They Were Just Too Early.” (February 2, 2016).

So were the Iowa polls “wrong,” and if so, what was wrong with them? To answer this question, we have to ask, “what are they meant to reflect?” Naturally, it goes without saying that the media expect polls to predict elections; the horse-race questions tell us who is in the lead, and the final horse-race poll should show who is first past the finish line. But to beat the horse race metaphor into the ground, if the horses are very close in the final poll, though not yet across the line, it is not inconceivable that the leader should slip and ultimately lose.


“Dewey defeats Truman” is a classic example of a polling debacle, but it would not be fair to say that the polls in 1948 were wrong; they just stopped polling too early and didn’t take measure of the last part of the race when Truman passed Dewey on the final turn.
Polls are a snap shot of opinion, and opinion can change, as it did in the 1948 presidential race, and again in the 2008 Democratic primary, when polls showed a lead for then-Senator Obama before Hillary Clinton pulled out a victory.

So it is possible that the Selzer Des Moines Register poll was not incorrect; it was just too early, as Mark Blumenthal and Jon Cohen conclude in their analysis. In addition, Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth Poll, did the thankless post-mortem work on his polls to investigate what went wrong. Monmouth called over 250 of the Iowan Republicans interviewed in their poll and found that a higher than average number of Trump supporters never went to the caucuses, but more importantly, many Republicans changed their minds and decided late to caucus for Ted Cruz. This story was reported by the Huffington Post on February 5th.

So, when the most recent CNN/WMUR poll in New Hampshire came out on February 4, 2016 with the headline, “NH Poll: Trump on top, Rubio in second,” I immediately searched for the level of undecideds. With only five days to go before the primary, one third of GOP primary voters said that they were undecided.

If decisions are made in the polling booth or just a day or hours before voting, polls will reflect the final vote only if the undecided voters break out the way the decided voters are distributed. If last minute deciders break toward one candidate in larger proportions, the poll may have been “right” in that it reflects the public at that time, but it would not reflect the election outcome.

Iowa Didn’t Change Much of Anything

The nature of the nominating contest has changed since the time of the “beauty contests,” where candidates participated in primaries to show electability. Today, it is all about acquiring pledged delegates ahead of the national convention. The one thing that has not changed is that the candidate is still selected from the floor of the national convention, but typically, today we know how that vote will play out because the primary and caucuses allow us to calculate the number of pledged delegates.

We get lost in the weeds of the nominating process when we focus on “must win” states, or “momentum.” Political scientists are better off focusing on the empirical data available: the number of delegates at stake and the method of allocating the delegates within the states that will eventually go to the national conventions. When, in 2008, the Obama campaign focused on the delegate count in its contests against Clinton, it had the more disciplined campaign and it was able to come out on top in a very closely-contested, evenly-matched nomination battle.

The early primaries mattered more when money in politics was more scarce. To win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire demonstrated viability, and to lose demonstrated a high risk for rick-adverse funders. Today, with the large PACs and generally more money across the board—where even Sanders, without a PAC, can raise $20 million in a quarter—campaigns do not need to fold right after the early contests because they cannot afford to continue. Jeb Bush’s campaign, with a very disappointing performance in Iowa, still has $7.6 million on hand and plenty of Super PAC funds on his behalf.

On the Democratic Side

Myth: Iowa forced O’Malley out

The Iowa Caucuses did not change the fortunes of Martin O’Malley’s campaign. The campaign was running on fumes, with very little public support or financial support. Although O’Malley raised $5.9 million, he has spent almost all of it without the ability to refill his campaign coffers.

Why then did O’Malley drop out after Iowa? Because if, by some miracle, he were able to demonstrate that his campaign for the nomination were viable, or if something went terribly wrong in either of the other campaigns, he may be able to raise some money to keep it going. Staying in through Iowa is like buying the lottery ticket, the chances are very poor, but those chances become zero if one does not buy a ticket.

Myth: Clinton won

I will not dispute the fact that Clinton will walk away with a couple more pledged delegates than Sanders, but the term “win” suggests some conclusion. It is not only true that the caucus process in Iowa is not concluded—they still have the state caucus—but to see Iowa as an independent event is to overlook the larger nomination process. The better analogy is to see Iowa as the first inning of the game, and Clinton and Sanders are about even; no one would suggest that the team leading after the first inning has won anything. (See previous blog post).

On the Republican Side

Myth: There are Three Tickets out of Iowa

Typically, Iowa and New Hampshire thin the herd of candidates, and on the GOP side, it’s a larger herd. The herd thinning resulted from (a) a lack funding to go on and (b) the perception that another candidate has become the inevitable nominee. Clearly, for most candidates, these 2 factors do not apply; many of the candidates have tapped in to funding sources, which are more abundant in politics today, and there is no perception of an inevitable GOP candidate yet.

As in the case of O’Malley, for Mike Huckabee, the problems his campaign faced are not the result of Iowa; the Huckabee campaign’s problems reach back much further.

Myth: Cruz won big

Ted Cruz appears to have come out of Iowa with only one more delegate than Trump or Rubio—one out of a total of 2,472, or out of the 1,237 needed to win the nomination. Like Clinton, Cruz holds a very small lead after the first inning, with a long game ahead.