Post-Truth Politics

On February 16th, I participated in a panel on Post-Truth Politics at Castleton University. The panel was part of a series organized by the Castleton University Library, and the session I participated on was titled, “Fake News and Truthiness.” The following post is a slightly revised version of my opening remarks from that panel session.

Facts hold a special place in political discourse. In his defense of British soldiers following the Boston Massacre, John Adams spoke, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reiterated these words in a Senate hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. Both men assumed that facts were irrefutable and held a special place in our deliberations.

People may disagree about the meaning of facts, but the facts exist independent of individuals’ opinions. Still, it is important to draw a distinction between facts and truth. A fact is something that cannot be refuted through reasoning or observation, whereas truth is something which depends on a person’s perspective and experience.

In a New York Times Op Ed piece last August (Aug. 24, 2016), William Davies, a Professor of Political Economy at the University of London, wrote that, “We have entered an age of post-truth politics.” The presumption that follows is that the previous age was an age of truth politics—a dubious presumption for sure. Consider the verbal gymnastics of Donald Rumsfeld, the parsing of words by Bill Clinton, the enigmatic statements from Fed Chairmen, or other creative political communications that have stretched truth, often past the breaking point. I don’t know that the pre-“Post Truth World” was really a place of established truth.

In fact, I think that “truth” is too lofty a goal for political communication.

I tell the students in my Research Methods class that if they want “truth” they need to go to church … or maybe a museum or philosophy discussion. Science doesn’t provide truth. It provides a method for understanding our world that is limited to physical and/or behavioral phenomena – limited to that which can be measured.

That being said, science is very useful; it has improved the lives of nearly everyone on the planet in some measurable way. At the same time it has also created weapons so horrific they could terminate our existence as a species.

Science is a method; it’s not the outcome. It is not a moral system. It is a process for understanding our world.

We who sell science as a means for understanding, however, too often simply convey results or findings of our research. In so doing, we’ve failed to propagate our methods, which are the essence of scientific understanding. By failing to instill the methods of scientific understanding—instead, focusing on findings—we failed to bring the general public along to scientific reasoning. If all that matters is the findings—and the means for obtaining those findings are irrelevant—then the public is left with little criteria for judging among conflicting findings.

And that’s where we are.
Truth may be too high a bar for the sciences—the natural and social sciences. But we should be able to agree upon a set of facts—agree about testable observations corresponding to the observable world.

Our news and political debate should be based upon fact, as Adams and McCain suggest. Yet too often facts are distorted or ignored. We live in a world of slanted news and now even the oxymoronic “FAKE news.”

I want to draw a distinction between slanted news and fake news; the former has an element of truth but may suggest motives or imply a nefarious agenda, while the latter is completely fabricated from thin air. An example of fake news is the story that claimed John Podesta and Hillary Clinton were running a child prostitution ring from a Washington Pizzeria. The story sounds preposterous, but one individual believing it to be true went to the pizzeria, armed, to liberate the victims.

The proliferation of slanted news allowed an environment where someone could believe the fabricated news. If your diet of news constantly tells you that Hillary Clinton is corrupt, without morals, and so power hungry that she will do anything, the fabricated story becomes plausible.

A Los Angeles Times reporter met with the man who went to the pizzeria to intervene on behalf of the children—a noble cause if there ever was one. He was not a bad man, looking to harm people. He went with the best of intentions. Yet a situation was created where people’s lives were endangered.

Fake news has real consequences.

Our political discourse is eroded by neglecting facts with impunity. When the public distrusts the media nearly as much as they distrust a leader who has on many occasions shown no regard for facts, we lack a firm foundation for rational political discourse.

If we aspire to reach some truth or greater understanding, it is imperative that we pave that path with universally recognized facts.

Understanding What Went Wrong with 2016 Polls Will Take Time

Trying to grapple with the failure of polling to predict the Electoral College victory of President-elect Donald Trump, I wrote a short piece for the Castleton student newspaper, The Spartan. In that piece, I argue that we need examine the systematic omission of a segment of the population who are not unreachable, but rather who refuse to participate in polling as respondents. As response rates declined over the past two decades, it was not only a result of those that we could not reach, but we also saw a rise in refusals—those who we could reach but who refused to participate in any polls. Figure 1 shows that this segment of the public is actually greater than the proportion that we cannot reach at all. While we know very little about the unreachable segment of the population, we have some, but limited, information about the refusals. We need to employ that metadata to understand as much as we can about this subpopulation.

The American Association for Public Opinion Research has put together a taskforce to examine the polling from 2016; this is something to watch closely. What I believe that I know now is this:

  1. Any explanation that employs one factor to explain the polling errors is wrong. There are many factors in play.
  2. Most of the early attempts to explain the errors are also wrong; we need a thoughtful and deep examination of the methodology, which will take time and peer discussion.

More to come.

pewresponserates
Figure 1. Pew’s response rates, 1997 – 2012.

Favorability and Vote Choice

(This post was co-written with John Graves, summer intern at the Castleton Polling Institute and student at Mill River Union High School, Clarendon, VT)

With the Vermont state primary behind us, the Castleton Polling Institute went back to the July VPR Poll to explore the relationship between the candidates’ relative favorability and their share of the primary votes. Without developing a “likely voter” model (which in low-turnout elections becomes very difficult), we simply used the favorability ratings from all of the respondents who identified themselves as either Democrat or Republican and as potential primary voters.

Using the principle of transitivity from rational choice theory, we made the following presumptions:

  • If Respondent A rated Candidate X more favorably than they rated Candidate X’s primary opponents, then Respondent A would choose Candidate X. Thus the probability of Respondent A’s vote going to Candidate X would be 1, and the probability of Respondent A’s vote going to Candidate Y or Z is 0.
  • If Respondent A rated all candidates the same, Respondent A is equally likely to choose any candidate. Thus, the vote probability in a three-way race is Candidate X = .33, Candidate Y = .33, and Candidate Z = .33.
  • If Respondent A rated Candidate X and Candidate Y more favorably than they rated Candidate Z, then Respondent A is equally likely choose X or Y but not Z. Thus the probability of Respondent A’s vote going to Candidate X would be .5, to Candidate Y is .5, and the probability of Respondent A’s vote going to Candidate Z is 0.

Even if Respondent A rated all of the candidate’s poorly, if Respondent A was to cast a vote in a rational manner, the vote would go to whomever was rated highest, on a relative scale.

Additional presumptions:

  • Respondents are more likely to vote for a candidate with whom with they have at least passing familiarity than for one they don’t recognize.
  • We presume, however, that a respondent will choose a candidate unknown to him over one whom the respondent has rated unfavorably.
  • Thus, in order of likelihood to get respondents’ votes, here are the scores assigned to each respondent for each of the candidates:

1. Very favorable rating and known to the respondent
2. Somewhat favorable rating and known to the respondent
3. Known to the respondent, but the respondent has no definite opinion either favorable or unfavorable
4. Unknown to the respondent
5. Somewhat unfavorable rating and known to the respondent
6. Very unfavorable rating and known to the respondent

After figuring out which candidate or candidates we thought each subject was going to vote for we tried to control for the most likely voters by looking at party affiliation and how likely each subject self-reported that they would be to vote in the primary. We concluded that the most representative sample of likely voters would be subjects who were affiliated with the given party and who also said they were at least somewhat likely to vote in the primary. This formed a group of 69 Republicans and 138 Democrats from the poll that were predicted to vote in the primary, representing 11.9% and 23.7% respectively of the registered voters from the VPR poll. These numbers are slightly higher than the actual 10.3% and 16.2% turnout in the actual election, but that is to be expected with the polling response bias for citizens interested in politics.

Figure 1 illustrates the percent of the vote each candidate is projected to receive based on the relative favorability ratings; in addition, the chart compares the projected vote against the actual vote received in the respective primary races.

 

Favorability&Vote
Figure 1. Projected vote (with error bars) based on relative candidate favorabiilty ratings, compared with actual vote totals

 

As Figure 1 illustrates, our model did a good job at predicting both parties’ gubernatorial primary elections, with both predictions within the margin of error for the actual results, with the exception of Peter Galbraith’s projected vote total, which was lower than the model projected. In the Republican race our model predicted Scott to win with 64 percent of the vote, very close to the actual 60 percent. The model also predicted that Minter would receive 48 percent of the Democratic vote—very close to the 49 percent she actually received. It is possible—although we lack any empirical evidence—that the model’s over-prediction of Galbraith could be explained by some strategic voting, voters choosing their favorite between the two front runners out of concern that Galbraith could not win.

On the other hand, the model missed predicting the Democratic primary outcome for the Lieutenant Governor’s race, picking Smith instead of Zuckerman as the likely winner. One possible reason for this difference between the model and results could be because of a change in public perception from the time the poll was completed until Election Day. This seems especially possible in this race given the late endorsement from the extremely popular Bernie Sanders who might have changed the minds of some Vermont voters. This difference illustrates the difficulty in predicting  election results in advance in low turnout elections, especially when only using favorability rating as a proxy for whom subjects will vote. It is also possible that Progressives—who would not have self-identified as Democrats and who therefore would not be included in the model—crossed over to the Democratic primary to support Zuckerman.

Though our model successfully predicted two out of the three races, it is a respondent-level model, and therefore requires that we have a good estimate for who will vote in the primaries—which of our respondents expressing views will actually show up and cast a ballot. In a higher turnout race, such as the general election, we can estimate that a majority of respondents will follow through and vote. This is not the case with the state primary races, where fewer than 3 in 10 eligible voters cast a ballot.

Consequently, we lack a high-enough level of confidence in this model to predict a future event so we are left to test the model and do as most political scientists do: predict the past.

Campaigns Matter, Even When Most Voters Are Not Engaged

The VPR Poll in July 2016 asked Vermonters about the candidates. Respondents were asked if they have heard of each candidate for governor or lieutenant governor; for each candidate that a respondent has heard of, the respondents were asked if their opinion of that candidate was favorable or unfavorable.

The data from these two questions allowed us to assess how well a candidate is known and whether those who know the candidate have a favorable or unfavorable opinion (or no opinion at all). This is what a campaign is all about: to introduce or reintroduce one’s candidate to the voters and to create a favorable image for that candidate among those voters. The successful campaigns approach the election with a large percentage of the public holding favorable views of their candidates. As the Vermont state primary approaches, the candidate with the greatest level of name recognition is current Lieutenant Governor and gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott. Of the 86 percent of Vermont adults who recognize Scott, 58 percent hold a favorable view of him, while only 13 percent hold an unfavorable view—giving Scott a net favorability score of 45. (Net favorability is percentage of respondents with an unfavorable opinion of the candidate subtracted from the percentage of respondents with a favorable opinion; those with no opinion are not included in the calculation.) The only gubernatorial candidate with a higher net favorability score—higher by a mere and insignificant 1 point—was Sue Minter; however, only 63 percent of Vermont adults have heard of Minter.

The following graph shows the relative awareness and net favorability for all of the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.

CampaignsMatterFig1
Figure 1. Candidates’ Name Recognition and Net Favorability Ratings, July 2015

Of course, the job of a campaign is to improve the level of public awareness and public approval for one’s candidate. In September 2015, the Castleton Poll asked Vermonters about a number of candidate who were potentially running for governor. The following table shows the changes from fall of 2015 to July 2016.

CampaignsMatterTab1
Table 1. Changes in Name Recognition and Favorability from September 2015 to July 2016

The campaign of Bruce Lisman made the most traction in getting the candidate’s name recognized by potential voters, going from having only 21 percent knowing who he is in September to 61 percent this July. Unfortunately, being known as a candidate takes a hit on one’s favorability ratings, as LIsman’s net favorability dropped from 13 to 3.  This is what hit Phil Scott, who had the biggest drop in net favorability from September 2015 to July 2016. Of course, Scott had such high favorables it was inevitable that, as a candidate, those numbers would come down.

Randy Brock, a former gubernatorial candidate, has lost ground running for lieutenant governor in both awareness and favorability.

Sue Minter has made the greatest gains in favorability, picking up a net 20 points and increasing her awareness by 25 percentage points. While she is, in July 2016, a little less known than her primary opponent Matt Dunne, her net favorability is comparably higher. This sets up a potentially close race for the Democratic nomination. The victor will likely be the one who mobilizes supporters best with the better get-out-the-vote effort.

 

 

A Disengaged Public

Heading into the Vermont state primaries held in August, the VPR Poll asked Vermonters about the candidates. Respondents were asked if they have heard of each candidate for governor or lieutenant governor; for each candidate that a respondent has heard of, the respondents were asked if their opinion of that candidate was favorable or unfavorable. The best known candidate, by polling numbers, was Phil Scott (R), who was known to 86 percent of the general public, 73 percent of which had an opinion of Lieutenant Governor Scott. In other words, only 62 percent of the general public had an opinion on the best known of the candidates for governor. The best known Democratic candidate, Matt Dunne, is known to 73 percent of Vermont adults, 66 percent of which have an opinion of Mr. Dunne—meaning that just under half of Vermont adults (48 percent) had an opinion about Dunne. The number are lower for all other candidates, including Shap Smith (D) who has served as the Speaker of the House in the Vermont legislature. The following table shows the relative proportions of Vermont adults without opinions about the men and women running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor.

Level of opinions based on percentage of those respondents who have heard of a candidate who in turn have either a favorable or unfavorable impression of that candidate.
Percent of Vermont Adults with an Opinion of the Candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor

Of course, there is no qualifications of knowledge about the candidates in order to vote, and it is only necessary to know about the candidate one supports. However, if elections are about choice, it would be ideal if voters knew more about the choices available to them on the ballot.

The Perils of Polling in Low-turnout Primaries

Recently Energy Independent Vermont commissioned a poll conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz, and Associates (FM3), a public opinion research group that works primarily with Democratic candidates and a wide array of governments, non-profits, and corporations. The poll interviewed 600 registered Vermont voters, and although little additional information about the methodology was published, the report claimed to represent “likely voters” defined by those “who said they are likely to vote” (from Polhamus, Mike. “Poll finds support for carbon tax, other climate change steps.” VTDigger. Accessed online on July 12, 2016). Self-reported likelihood to vote is a notoriously biased number, even in the best of elections; this is what pollsters call social desirability bias.

The poll reported 65 percent of respondents saying that they are likely to vote in the state primary; the voter turnout in the last gubernatorial primary election without an incumbent (2010) was only 24 percent, and in 2014 the turnout was only 9 percent. Given prior elections, 65 percent is an unrealistic projection for state primary turnout.

While I admire FM3’s attempt to poll in these important primaries, I contend that a much larger sample is necessary. It may be counter-intuitive to some, but polling is much easier in large populations than in small populations. What is most difficult about the projections of the population voting in primaries is that the parameters of these populations are generally unknown. We do not have exit poll data to tell us about the general patterns of state primary voters. The best indicator we have for whether or not someone will vote in the state primary is one’s past voting history, which can be obtained from voting records. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

When the voting population is small, the danger of using past voting behavior is that mobilization of just a small number of new voters—voters not picked up in a sample frame including only past voters—can make a large impact. In other words, a strong get-out-the-vote (GOTV) movement can overcome name recognition, advertising, and direct mail disadvantages.

The FM3 poll may be right on target, but it is more likely that the respondents in the late June poll will not look like the voting population in the August 9th election because, unless this is a fortunately unrepresentative sample of registered voters, most of these respondents are not likely to vote in the state primary.

Thoughts on Sanders and Trump

Sanders and the Democratic party’s nominating process

A NBC News/SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking Poll (May 3- – June 5, 2016) believe that the nominating process is fair; only 38 percent of Democrats label the process as unfair. This doesn’t mean that the Sanders supporters who are upset with the process may come around, but the majority of Democrats are not upset.

What is interesting is that despite the fact that the outsider on the Republican side (Trump) seems to have prevailed, in contrast to the outsider on the Democratic side, the level of Republicans who say that the process for choosing a nominee in their party is unfair is equal to that of the Democrats, at 38 percent. I do not have the raw data, or I would explore who is upset on the GOP side. Are they supporters of an unsuccessful candidate, or are there a number of Donald Trump supporters who still believe the system is unfair despite their having prevailed?

Trump’s attacks journalists and judges

When Trump attacked his political opponents, both within and outside of his party, with demeaning nick names (e.g. “Little Marco” or “Lying Ted”), it seemed sophomoric and unbecoming of any individual seeking the presidency, but it did not raise constitutional questions nor did it seem to threaten the fabric of American democracy, in my mind. However, when Trump questioned the integrity of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the context of Trump’s attacks changed from merely political to potentially threatening to the Constitutional balance among the three branches of government. There is a reason that lawyers can face sanctions for raising unfounded recusal arguments; frivolous recusal requests undermine the system of justice. Imagine if these came from President Donald Trump. To get an idea of the questions that would be raised, simply recall the reaction to President Obama’s derision of the Citizens United ruling during a State of the Union address, and consider that he did not make any charges about the motives or integrity of the justices.

Additionally, many political commentators and political scientists—myself included—have been troubled by Trump’s belligerent tone against the press. Without the benefit of data, I venture to assert that no other presidential candidate has treated the press with as much contempt as has Donald Trump. Gallup’s “Confidence in U.S. Institutions” measure shows that Americans do not have a high level of confidence in the television or print media; only 24 percent have a high level of confidence in newspapers, and 21 percent have a high level of confidence in television news. Interestingly, conservatives have a lower opinion of the media than do liberals, but conservatives have more confidence in television news (21 percent with a high level) than in newspapers (16 percent). (See Gallup. “Trust Differs Most by Ideology for Church, Police, and Presidency.”)

The public’s low confidence in the media makes Trump’s hostility to the press easier to understand. And yet the press has repaid Trump’s hostility with a wealth of earned (free or nonpaid) media coverage. According to the New York Times (March 15, 2016), Trump had received over $1.8 billion in earned media by that point in the campaign, eclipsing all other candidates by far. In fact, the second highest level of earned media went to Hillary Clinton, $746 million, or less than 40 percent of what Trump received.

The days of chumming with the press like John F. Kennedy did are long gone, and this has been to the electorate’s advantage. It would not surprise me to learn that most candidates carry disdain for the press, but candidates, as a rule, do not behave in an openly hostile manner to the press. Most candidates understand that the press—the fourth estate—is necessary to keep the public informed, to be a watchdog for public interests, and to provide voters with the information they need to make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.

Sources of Trump’s Support

At the 2016 New England Political Science annual conference in Newport, RI, in April, Matthew MacWilliams from UMass Amherst presented his research in a presentation titled, “The Rise of Donald Trump: America’s Authoritarian Spring.” The provocative title drew political scientists into the panel like moths to a light on a summer’s night, and the presentation did not disappoint. MacWilliams, who is the President of his own political consulting firm called MacWilliams Sanders Communication, used survey data to measure respondents’ support for authoritarianism in a multivariate scale. Among the measures used in the scale are support for suspending habeas corpus, support for “keeping other groups in their place,” and preventing minority opposition. Those who scored highest on the authoritarianism scale were more likely to support Trump than those who scored low.

In fact, when controlling for several variables, such as age, education, ideology, and religion, one’s authoritarian score was the best predictor of one’s support for Trump. In an article for Politico (January 17, 2016), MacWilliams wrote,

So, those who say a Trump presidency “can’t happen here” should check their conventional wisdom at the door. The candidate has confounded conventional expectations this primary season because those expectations are based on an oversimplified caricature of the electorate in general and his supporters in particular. Conditions are ripe for an authoritarian leader to emerge. Trump is seizing the opportunity. And the institutions—from the Republican Party to the press—that are supposed to guard against what James Madison called “the infection of violent passions” among the people have either been cowed by Trump’s bluster or are asleep on the job.

We have been warned.

Support for an Ethics Commission in Vermont

Finding that a wide majority of Vermonters (74 percent) support the establishment of an ethics commission is not surprising. What’s not to support? When the Castleton Poll (Sept. 2016) asked Vermonters whether they would support or oppose creating an ethics commission, there was no context about the need for or cost of creating such a body; so naturally, it is not surprising that most would support such a benign concept.

In that same poll, however, Castleton asked about the perceived need for an ethics panel. This is a very different concept, of course. Here is the precise wording of each question:

1. Right now, Vermont state government is considering whether or not to establish an independent panel to investigate potential ethics violations where state officials are involved. Would you support or oppose the establishment of a state ethics commission in Vermont?
2. Some have argued that as a small state, Vermont does not have the problems of other states, and therefore an independent ethics commission is not necessary and would only be a bother. Others have argued that Vermont needs an independent oversight body to address concerns about the ethical behavior of public officials. With whom do you most agree?

We used a split-sample approach—asking a random selection of half of the panel on question and the other half the other question—to keep the concepts separated. The rationale for the split sample is that if a respondent receive both question in the order above, once someone said that they support a commission, they would likely be compelled to say that the commission was needed; if someone opposed establishing an ethics panel, they would not likely then respond that they think one is needed. Alternatively, if we reversed the order of the two, those suggesting a need for a panel would be hard pressed not to support establishing one, and vice versa. By asking all respondents only one of the two questions, we have decoupled the concepts, and by assigning the questions to respondents randomly, we have removed any bias for one question or concept over another.

I believe that the most relevant statistic is the percent of Vermonters who feel that an ethics panel is needed (67 percent). Two-thirds of all those receiving the question agreed with the notion that a commission to “address concerns about the ethical behavior of public officials” is needed. While the number of Vermonters who believe an ethics commission is needed in their state is lower than the number who would support the concept of establishing a commission, it still represents a large majority.

Ethics_blog

In light of the EB-5 story (http://vtdigger.org/eb5-an-investigation/) suggesting possible corruption in handling investments, it is reasonable to expect that the levels of support and the feeling that such a commission is needed have both risen (although without empirical verification, this is mere speculation on my part).

Generally, it is safe to assume that calls for an ethics commission will be well-received by the Vermont public. A look at the issue by party can be found on the Polling Institute web site: http://www.castleton.edu/about-castleton/the-castleton-polling-institute/poll-results/vermont-issues-poll.

Reflections on the Vermont 2016 Presidential Primary Poll

On February 22, 2016, Vermont Public Radio released the results of a statewide presidential primary and issues poll conducted by us, the Castleton Polling Institute. The poll came out of the field on February 17 in order to weight the data and give VPR reporters time to prepare stories putting the polling results in context, and VPR wanted to use that time to reflect on where Vermonters stood in advance of 2016 Town Meeting Day and a presidential primary that was to feature a US Senator from Vermont in the Democratic primary and a topsy-turvy Republican race.

Since the election, I have taken some time to reflect on the poll and how well it reflected the public’s primary preferences; I’m conducting a review of our polling to assess to what extent we had a clear picture of the Vermont likely voters 12 days prior to the presidential primary and whether or not our likely voter model needs an overhaul.

Voter Turnout

We used the 2008 presidential primaries as a basis for estimating voter turnout in 2016, since 2008 is the most recent election where no incumbent (neither president nor vice-president) was seeking the nomination in either party. In addition, we made a presumption that the Sanders’ campaign had created an excitement among younger voters akin to the 2008 Obama campaign. Our poll reinforced these assumptions, showing a high degree of support for Sanders among younger voters and showing that the percentage of votes cast in the Democratic primary would near (but not reach) the level of 2008. Sixty-six percent of poll respondents said that they would take a Democratic ballot, and 22 percent said that they would take a Republican ballot in the open primary; when we adjust for 11 percent that hadn’t yet decided in which primary they would vote (eliminating the 11 percent “unsure” and distributing that percent proportionately among the Democratic and Republican primaries) we had 75 percent in the Democratic primary and 25 percent in the Republican primary. The adjusted values overestimated the Democratic share of primary voters (69 percent) and underestimated the Republican share (31 percent) by 6 percentage points. It appears, given the volatility and excitement surrounding the Republican nomination race that the “unsure” voters gravitated more strongly to the Republican contest.

The Democratic Primary

In our likely voter estimation, 78 percent of the respondents planning to vote in the Democratic primary favored Sanders, in contrast to 13 percent for Clinton; 9 percent were unsure at the time, which is not an unreasonable stance two weeks prior to a primary election. Adjusting for the fact that voters do not cast “unsure” ballots, distributing the “unsure” voters proportionately results in 86 percent for Sanders and 14 percent for Clinton, estimates that perfectly reflect the actual share of the vote for the Democratic candidates.

Tab1_PrimaryReflection
Table 1. Polling support compared with election results for the 2016 Democratic presidential primary

The Republican Primary

Given the volatility of the Republican race in the 12 days from when the VPR poll came out of the field until Vermonters cast their votes, it is not surprising that the estimates of where voters stood on February 17 did not mirror the final Republican vote tally. Using the same process of adjusting for the “unsure” voters (by distributing their votes among the candidates in proportion to the candidates’ share of the vote without “unsure” voters), our likely voter model had Donald Trump winning the Vermont Republican primary with 38 percent of the vote, nearly 6 percentage points higher than his actual share of the vote.

We estimated that Marco Rubio would place second with 17 percent of the vote (adjusted from 15 percent), and John Kasich would finish third with 16 percent of the vote (adjusted from 14 percent). Instead, Kasich finished with 30 percent of the vote and Rubio with 19 percent

Tab2_PrimaryReflection
Table 2. Polling support compared with election results for the 2016 GOP presidential primary

The difference between where we had Trump and Rubio on February 17th and where they finished on March 1 is affected by a great deal of campaign dynamics, but the estimates were well within our poll’s sampling error for the subset of Republican voters (MoE = +/- 9 percentage points). Kasich’s final vote tally, however, fell outside of the margin of error; his final vote share was nearly 14 percentage points higher than where we had his estimate on February 17.

The differences between estimates made 12 days before the election and the final election tallies in the Vermont Republican contest can be attributed to two major factors:

  1. The breadth of the field changed as candidates dropped out of the race, and
  2. The efforts that the Kasich campaign put into Vermont changed Kasich’s prospects after the poll was out of the field.

By the time Vermonters cast their ballots the field had winnowed down to five active candidates; most of the Vermonters who supported Bush (5 percent), Christie (3 percent) and others (2 percent) sought out other candidates to support. Additionally, the 12 percent “unsure”—which we distributed proportionately to candidates based on their poll support—were not likely to go to the candidates who had suspended their campaigns. It is not inconceivable that some of the Bush and Christie support would go to the remaining governor in the race, John Kasich, but that would not explain all of Kasich’s gains.

Between the conclusion of the poll and election day, Kasich was the only candidate to visit Vermont, not once but twice (February 27th and 29th), including a visit to the more densely Republican Rutland County. Given that Vermont is the size of a small congressional district (the average size being 710,767, about 14% bigger than the population of Vermont), it is possible to make measurable gains in a short time because a candidate can reach a large proportion of the voters without the effort and resources it would take in a larger state.

Campaigns matter, and their activity can move voters. To believe otherwise, we could conduct a poll at the outset of candidate announcements and use those results to predict winners. But to do so would be a ridiculous proposition. In primary elections, voters cannot fall back on the decision shortcut of party preference, so candidates have more room to sway voters. The dynamics of the campaigns make it difficult to mirror election day results days before an election when voters have time to change or make up their minds.

The VPR poll asked respondents if they were likely to change their minds before election day. Overall, a majority (59 percent) said that their mind was made up, but among those planning to vote in the Republican primary, a majority (55 percent) said that they might change their mind, as illustrated in Figure 1. The odds are very high that many did in fact cast their ballot for someone other than the candidate they supported in the poll.

Pres Primary Change Mind
Figure 1. Likelihood of changing one’s mind about which candidate respondents will support, by choice of primary

In general, we believe that the VPR poll and the likely voter model employed did an effective job demonstrating public views at that time; in fact, those results mirrored the final outcome in the Democratic primary, where voters had mostly settled on their choices earlier than in the Republican primary. Differences between poll results and the ultimate election results in the Republican primary are easily attributed to the Kasich campaign efforts and the changing landscape in the Republican race in the aftermath of the South Carolina and Nevada primaries.

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.

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