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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
The breadth of the field changed as candidates dropped out of the race, and
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.
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.
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:
North Dakota, 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.
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
Are not registered to vote;
Do not follow news about the presidential race either “very closely” or “somewhat closely”; and,
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:
Follow news about the election “very closely”
Say that they are “very likely to vote”
Identify with one of the major political parties
Have a college degree or more education
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:
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 Timesreport 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.
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.
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.
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.