Looking at Rutland City 2017 Town Meeting Day Ballots, Part 2

Vermont state law permits citizens to review ballots after they have been counted and certified. Transparency like this promotes trust in the electoral process. During the summer of 2017, the Castleton Polling Institute examined the ballots from Rutland City’s 2017 Town Meeting Day election (March 7, 2017), building a database of actual votes of Rutland city residents. That database allows us to test the patterns of voting in Rutland, to understand the relationships between support for mayoral candidates and other options, such as the city budget and choices for the Board of Aldermen, examined in an earlier blog post.

When Castleton students reviewed the ballots, they made judgements on the voters’ intents and entered the results into a database. While the results from the Castleton assessment do not perfectly mirror those of the official results, they are very close. We do not suggest that our results are more precise than the results provided by Rutland City to the Secretary of State; but our results are the best representation of the actual vote that we could manage.

As Table 1 clearly shows, the difference in counts was extremely small, never totaling more than a tenth of one percent. It appears that Castleton, using its best estimate of voter intent, reduced the number of spoiled ballots slightly, and reallocated a few other votes, but nothing to make a meaningful difference. Another pass at the data may have yielded results more in line with the official results, but for the purposes of our analysis—and given the tendency for human error in any counting process that involves some interpretation—we are comfortable with the differences.

If anything, this should provide some support for confidence in the vote counting process in Rutland City.

[The Polling Institute is grateful to the City of Rutland for the opportunity to review the ballots.]


Looking at Rutland City 2017 Town Meeting Day Ballots

Because the only output from elections is the final count for each race or ballot measure, political scientists have relied on pre-election polling and exit polls to interpret voting behavior. Anyone who studies public opinion knows that some of the most insightful information from the polls comes from crosstabs, looking at the relationship between views and positions. Every pollster and political scientist also knows that polling is rife with errors—although still the best means for understanding public opinion. If, however, we were able to see the relationship between voting options at the individual level from the actual ballots, we would not need to rely so much on the polls.

Now we can move beyond the polls. At least in one instance.

During the summer of 2017, the Castleton Polling Institute examined the ballots from Rutland City’s 2017 Town Meeting Day election (March 7, 2017), building a database of actual voting behavior (not dependent upon self-reporting from surveys). That database allows us to test the patterns of voting in Rutland, to understand the relationships between support for mayoral candidates and other options, such as the city budget and choices for the Board of Aldermen. Of course, the ballots are absent any identifying data—such as age, party, and gender—but they provide some insight rarely seen or used in political science research.

The first insight into the data shows the relationship between one’s vote for mayor and support for the Rutland City budget (Article 2 on the ballot). The figure below shows that those who supported the winning candidate, Mayor David Allaire, were far less likely to support the budget than were those who supported either the incumbent, Christopher Louras, or challenger Mike Coppinger. Article 2 on the ballot, which proposed the city budget, easily passed with 57 percent of the vote. However, 55 percent of those who voted for Mayor Allaire voted “No” on the city budget. On the other hand, 85 percent of those voting for Louras, and 61 percent of those voting for Coppinger supported the budget article. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, supporters of Kam Johnston and those who wrote in a different option were even more opposed to the budget than the voters for Allaire.

Figure 1. Support for Rutland City General Fund budget, by choice for mayor

These data suggest that Louras and Coppinger represented the establishment voters, those who approved of the budget put forward by the Board of Alderman and, in the case of Louras voters, also supported the incumbent. Allaire’s support—which amounted to 51 percent of the voters—came from many who rejected the budget; in fact, if it were only up to Allaire’s voters, the budget would have failed. In this light, the 2017 Rutland City election looks like an insurgent election, where the voters rejected a long-time incumbent but could not muster enough support to defeat the proposed budget.

Thoughts from the Castleton Library’s Panel: The Truth is Out There: How We Know What We Know

In early March, I was asked to provide my thoughts on a panel hosted by the Castleton University Library about “Truth”. Here were the questions panelists asked to consider:

What is truth, how do we know what’s true? How do we (academia, publishers) strive for accuracy? What about scientific literacy, the scientific method, how knowledge is constructed. What should we as citizens do to stand up for science/truth or educate ourselves further on this?

Below are the thoughts I shared, as a survey researcher and applied sociologist:

The thoughts that I would to share on this topic come from two distinct but related areas: one as a consumer of social and scientific research and the second as a sociologist.

I think it makes sense to start with the more micro-level ideas, the way in which data and facts are presented. As a professional whose job entails the collection of opinions and data, which are regularly presented as facts, I am often uncomfortable with the way in which these are presented publicly–frequently as precise, hard-truths, with no context or limitations.

When people ask me, “How did the pollsters get the most recent presidential election ‘so wrong’?” my response to them is that they didn’t. For example Nate Silver’s FiveThrityEight poll aggregator before the election had Trump with a 29% chance of winning the Electoral College. That’s right: 3 in 10. If you were to go to a casino with those odds, you’d feel okay, but you wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t win-same for the election. The problem is that many polls and aggregators came up with a similar result, with Clinton likely to win, and this ended up being reported and shared as a certainty, rather than a probability.

Many of us who collect data, view our work as providing insight to a specific aspect of public opinion or behaviors for a specific population and at a specific time in a specific context. The quantitative data we collect is intended as an estimate or statistical probability.

There is error. Social scientists acknowledge error. The error is both known and unknown. We have measures of some sources of errors—like with margins of sampling error—those plus/minus percent rages that you see in the footnote of some reports of polls. Other types of errors are unknown or not easily observable or quantifiable, like measurement error and nonresponse error.

With the data we collect, we know all the details are important. It matters how the question is worded. It matters who is asking the question. It matters who is asked to respond and who is willing to respond. It also matters when you are asking. Public opinion isn’t true forever. Things change. The data being presented is a tied to a point-in-time, with a particular population, asked a particular question, with error both known and unknown built in. All of this is why you often find me and others like me asking for more details about how the data was collected, so that we can better evaluate the source and likely errors for ourselves.

We know that sometimes even the act of asking a question, can create an opinion. And depending on who is asked the result can be different, which brings me to the second idea that I’d like to discuss, which is at a much more of a macro-level.

As a sociologist, I have a difficult time discussing the concept or idea of truth without exploring social constructionism. For this, I turn to the work of Berger and Luckmann. We exist in a social world. Objects, symbols, language, and interactions all have meaning because we, collectively, have assigned meaning to them. The meaning that is assigned is based on our shared social understanding—we’ve created it.

Some tangible, simplistic ways this is clear to us is when the same symbol conveys a different meaning in a different culture. For example the hand gesture of “the middle finger” is an insult in the United States, but its equivalent in the United Kingdom is a V with the palm facing in.

This created, shared reality goes beyond simple cultural misunderstandings. We use this reality to create our institutions, grant power, legitimacy, and authority. Through the process of socialization, we internalize this reality and view it as natural and objective.

When we act as essentialists and do not acknowledge that these things are constructed and only are real because we’ve assigned them meaning, we further legitimize those that we’ve given authority to and those institutions, which can lead to discrimination and oppression. However, because we are all social actors and can partake in the construction of this shared truth, we can alter our structures, institutions, grant power, and legitimize diverse viewpoints.

This is why inclusion and diversity is so important. Whose reality, experience, and ideas are accepted as the truth matters. Who we ask and who we don’t ask matters. Who gets to be at the table and talk matters. I might add that I think it matters even at Castleton during an N-period panel about truth.

On Eroding Democratic Norms

The Constitution is a well-crafted document, but its power comes from the reverence we pay it; our democracy is dependent on democratic norms, such as respect for constitutional procedures, rule of law, and trust in the basic fairness of the system. Undermining that trust erodes the very foundation of our government.

The founding fathers recognized the importance of these norms. While they devised a system based on the premise that human nature is corruptible and that men were naturally self-serving and ambitious, they also believed that those who represent the people will be of superior character. “If we consider the situation of the men on whom the free suffrages of their fellow-citizens may confer the representative trust, we shall find it involving every security which can be devised or desired for their fidelity to their constituents,” wrote James Madison in Federalist 57. Madison adds, “In the first place, as they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.”

And since the founding, presidents of the United States have paid homage to the necessity of respect for law, the values espoused in the Declaration of Independence, and the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Additionally, modern presidents have made pains to get facts straight, even when using those facts to spin a narrative supporting controversial policy positions. Democratic norms and facts have mattered—at least the espousal of facts and norms have mattered.

President Trump has taken a noticeable departure from this standard, as far as I can tell. He has avowed that the media is the enemy of the people, contradicting the long-held position among American leaders that a free press is a necessary staple of a healthy democracy. He has made irrefutably erroneous statements speaking as the head of state that he has not corrected, and his press secretary has seemingly renounced the goal of fact checking, in favor of supporting the non-factual statements of the President.

This behavior has eroded our democratic norms and principles in the short period of President Trump’s tenure so far, and if continued, could possibly create irreparable damage.

It is common to oppose presidents for their policy positions, or distortion of facts, or on ideological principles while sharing a basic agreement on the norms of democracy, debate, and facts. It is uncommon to take issue with a sitting president’s commitment to basic American values. Even when opponents of George W. Bush (during debates about the Patriot Act) or opponents of Barack Obama (in light of health care reform) challenged the sitting president’s basic commitment to American values, the response of those presidents recognized the concerns of opponents and reaffirmed, at least rhetorically, the administration’s commitments to our democratic principles. Obama, Bush, and every modern president before them (with the possible exception of Nixon in his most dark times before resignation) recognized the legitimacy of the press and of the opposition, both within and outside of government. All of the modern presidents spoke of the great contributions of immigrants and of the value of tolerance toward others. All of the modern presidents before Donald Trump paid homage to the international community of nations, with respect for other cultures and with a commitment to international leadership.

The 2016 presidential election was far too close for anyone to claim a mandate from the electorate. The nation appeared not only closely divided, but deeply divided, as evidenced by the protests both in favor of the new president and against the new administration almost immediately. The size of the Women’s March on the weekend after the inauguration is a case in point, demonstrating the concern within the American public, and the protests following the President’s travel ban is another example of the unease.

Further concern can be measured by the historically low approval ratings that President Trump had in his first weeks in office. Gallup’s numbers show that most citizens feel “strongly” in their approval or disapproval of the new president, with 41 percent in late February expressing “Strong disapproval” of the way the President is handling his job.

We should all be concerned about such low approval ratings; these are not simply a concern of the Trump White House, but rather a deeper reflection on the angst in the American citizenry.

Republicans and Democrats in leadership positions need to resist the siren call for partisan battle and join in the common defense of basic democratic norms. There is absolutely nothing wrong with partisan battles, but they must be conducted within the framework of democratic principles, with shared facts and basic norms of tolerance and respect of opposition points of view.

Who is going to show up in August?

With so much energy focusing on the presidential nominating contests in both parties, when will Vermonters turn attention to the gubernatorial election? In the VPR Poll from February 2016, a vast majority of Vermonters said that they were following news about the Vermont Governor’s election either not too closely (40 percent) or not at all (26 percent). Clearly, in advance of 2016 Town Meeting Day, Vermonters had not yet begun to consider who they would like to see replace Peter Shumlin as governor of the Green Mountain State.

So when will Vermonters begin to focus on this important decision?

The state-wide primary elections will be August 9th, and if past behavior is indicative of future behavior—and it almost always is—turnout will be dismal. The 2014 Primary election turnout was only 9 percent. Let me state that another way for emphasis: less than 1 out of every 10 eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2014 state primary election.

In the open race of 2010, the last time there was a race without an incumbent from either party, the turnout for the state primary was 24 percent. In the Democratic primary, Peter Shumlin narrowly edged out Doug Racine, Deborah Markowitz, and Matt Dunne for the Democratic nomination. In a hotly contested primary race where four candidates received more than 20 percent of the Democratic vote, less than a quarter of all voters came out to cast a ballot. Additionally, this election was held later in August (August 27th) when Vermonters were coming out of the summer laze and more likely to tune into news and politics. In early August, many will still be focused on vacation and summer activities.

So high interest in the 2016 gubernatorial primary seems unlikely. The candidates will struggle to gain the attention of eligible voters. This will hurt most candidates without strong followings going in to the election.

Given his high name recognition and favorability, Phil Scott is obviously in a good place heading to the primary election, while Bruce Lisman has to gain public attention around his campaign.

On the Democratic side, it’s hard to know who is advantaged by the public’s low attention level, although is it likely that getting into the race far later than Matt Dunne and Sue Minter will not likely hurt Peter Galbraith in the primary. The race appears to be wide open.

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: http://project240.org/)  We hope you’ll join us for these great community events as we make our way through the election season!

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.

It’s all about the delegates, Part 2

It’s February 1, 2016, and the voting begins. Watching, reading, and listening to most media outlets today, you would think that Iowa would determine the outcome of the nominating contests in both parties. Nothing could be further from the truth. At stake in Iowa are 44 Democratic delegates and 30 Republican candidates—or less than 1 percent of the Democratic delegates and about 1.2 percent of the Republican delegates.

Of course, being the first contest provides a great deal of non-tangible power to the Iowa caucuses, but that power may be much less than in years past, and here’s why.

Typically, Iowa winnows the field of candidates, but on the Democratic side, the field is already sufficiently small; while the caucuses may give the campaign of Martin O’Malley reason to abandon its cause, it will not determine the fates of either Clinton or Sanders. On the Republican side, the field is very large, but the amount of money—both money raised by the campaigns and by political action committees (PACs)—that candidates can tap into is much greater than in the past, so much so that Jeb Bush who is in single digits in the polls still has about $8 million on hand and another $59 million in PAC support. (Of course, Huckabee, Santorum, and Gilmore are all running on fumes as far as finances, but the Iowa caucuses hardly factor into their problems.)

Bernie Sanders does not need to win Iowa to stay in the race, nor would a Clinton loss spell the end of her second attempt at the Democratic nomination. Both Sanders and Clinton have enough funds to fight on well beyond Iowa.

So there is the narrative to consider. If a candidate does not meet expectations in the first Caucus, the media may begin writing the obituary for that campaign, but with social media, and another contest only 8 days away, campaigns can battle the leading narratives to fight another day.

In the end, as I have stressed, the contest is all about acquiring a majority of the delegates. If no single candidate is able to amass a firm majority, then the bargaining begins. On the Republican side, that will be very interesting. On the Democratic side, however, it is difficult to imagine that one of the top two candidates will not have sealed the nomination well in advance of the July convention; it is just not likely to happen today, and Iowa is not determining anyone’s future.

And here’s a little more insight into the Democratic nomination race:

Democratic Delegates
A broad look at the Democratic delegate types; PLEOs are party leaders and elected officials


Democratic delegates by state
Democratic delegate allocations, largest and smallest states and territories

Deception in Polling

Recently, articles were trending with the finding that a particular candidate’s group of supporters would bomb a fictional city [for an example article: Click here].

Survey researchers tend to immediately seek out the methodological details of the poll when we see headlines like these. In this case, very few methodological details about the poll are available on the company’s website [PPP Poll Release] and certainly not enough detail to meet the basic AAPOR Transparency Initiative’s requirements (of which the company is not a member).

Without much methodological information, I do not claim to dispute the findings of this particular poll, but I would like to spend a moment considering the potential meaning and impact of this finding. Responding anything other than the “not sure” option to this question isn’t necessarily an indication that a respondent believes the city from Aladdin is an actual place, but rather a likely indication of general sentiment concerning military action in the Middle East.

Respondents don’t expect polls to intentionally deceive them. Those responding trust the researcher to ask valid and fair questions. Unfortunately headlines and poll questions like these erode the public’s trust in the field of survey research and further damages our ability to gather public opinion, behavioral, and other social science data for purposes far more important than sensational headlines.

It is one thing to carefully and respectfully design methodological question-wording experiments to advance the science of survey research to help us to write questions that are better at measuring public opinion, and quite another to use deception to collect data with the intention of being click-bait. In all likelihood, it is the misuse of methodological research that informed the creators of this poll that they would be likely to find a sensational, headline-making result by asking this question.

As part of our commitment to our respondents and our profession, Castleton Polling Institute will not undertake work that aims to intentionally deceive our respondents for the purposes attention-grabbing headlines. Our intentions when we ask to you to participate in research are not to trick you or ask unfair questions, but rather to be able to report on the public’s true opinion.

Christmas: Secular or Religious Holiday?

In 2013, a CNN/ORC International poll found that 94 percent of respondents in a general population polls said that they celebrate Christmas. Another poll by CNN and ORC International (December 2014) a year later asked respondents, “Do you think about Christmas more as a religious holiday, or more as a family holiday?” Half of all respondents said that they see Christmas as a family holiday, while 48 percent said they saw Christmas as a religious holiday.

The nation is divided nearly evenly on this question. Conservatives see Christmas more as a religious holiday (64 percent) whereas liberals see it more as a family holiday (69 percent) than as a religious holiday (28 percent). Just as we find ideology differs across the four Census Regions, views of Christmas differ as well. Respondents from the South were most likely to see Christmas as a religious holiday (58 percent), while those from the Northeast were the least likely (35 percent). [Cable News Network. CNN/ORC International Poll, Dec, 2014. USORC.122414.R46. ORC International. Storrs, CT:Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL, accessed Dec-18-2015.]

Is there a war on Christmas in America? If so, the battle is over the extent to which the holiday is seen in secular terms instead of religious terms. This battle often plays out in the greetings used around the holiday.

A 2013 poll conducted by SSRS for the Public Religion Research Institute asked, “Do you think stores and businesses should greet their customers with ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Seasons Greetings’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ out of respect for people of different faiths, or not?” Again, there was almost an even split in responses, with 49 percent supporting the use of a secular greeting and 43 percent opposing the secular greeting, favoring the “Merry Christmas” greeting. A strong majority of Republicans (61 percent) opposed the use of the secular greeting, while majorities of Democrats (58 percent) and Independents (56 percent) favored a secular greeting. The secular greeting was most highly favored in the Northeast (57 percent); even a slim majority in the South (51 percent) favored the secular greeting, contrary to regional stereotypes. The region most opposed to the secular greetings was the North Central where 48 percent favor the use of “Merry Christmas” to any secular alternative.

With that in mind, I hope all of our readers have a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, or just a peaceful break during this holiday season!

Figure 1: Responses to “Do you think stores and businesses should greet their customers with Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings instead of Merry Christmas out of respect for people of different faiths, or not?” by party identification [PRRI, Religion News Service. PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, Dec, 2013 [survey question]. USPRRI.121713.R05. Public Religion Research Institute. Storrs, CT:Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL, accessed Dec-18-2015.]

War on Xmas

The survey results reported here were obtained from searches of the iPOLL Databank and other resources provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.