The key notion in any election is almost always who will turn
out to vote. Pollsters usually have two categories of potential
voters with which to measure anticipated voter sentiment.
The first is registered voters (RVs) and the second is likely
voters (LVs). The former are easy to identify, but since so many
RVs don’t actually vote, a poll of these persons is relatively
useless once an actual campaign begins in earnest. LVs are
much more difficult to identify, and require a number of
subjective assumptions by pollsters. One of those assumptions
is based on whether or not someone voted in the previous
election. A second is what the person being polled tells the
pollster. It takes many more inquiries to find a likely voter,
and thus many pollsters prefer to employ registered voters as
At this point in the 2016 national election cycle, and particularly
in the presidential contest, a poll based on RVs is virtually
Historically, a poll based on carefully chosen LVs is much more
likely to be accurate, although even these polls have limited
utility until just before election day itself.
In 2016, the value of LVs is even less than usual because of an
important new circumstance. That circumstance is a
consequence of what I have called the “mutiny of the voting
masses” in the nation. Although quantifying the number of
voters who usually do not vote, but will likely vote this year, is
difficult, the reality that there will likely be a very high turnout
of these voters in 2016 is not speculation. An examination of
the results of the caucuses and primaries in the past months
leading to the two major party conventions is irrefutable
evidence that there is a new category --- what I call “new likely
NLVs are obviously more difficult to identify than ordinary LVs.
For pollsters, it means more time and more expense. Private
(and almost always unpublished) polls for individual candidates
and political parties are paid for with the understanding that
they will be relatively accurate. Pollsters who do this kind of paid
polling might be expected to spend the extra time and expense,
especially because if they are inaccurate, they will soon be out of
business. But the polls that most of us see, those done by media
outlets and major public polling firms will likely not spend the
time and money in 2016 to identify NLVs. Instead, they will rely on
LVs --- and hope for the best.
That hope is not likely to be fulfilled, I suggest, because there will
probably be so many voters on November 8 who have rarely if ever
voted before, but are motivated to go to the polls this year.
A lot of anticipation, even assuming this is true, remains as
speculation. Traditional demographic electoral analysis often
breaks down voters into ethnic, religious, gender and racial
categories. This would include the categories of female, male,
black, white, Hispanic, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish voters
among many other groupings. It is not only the percentage of
these groups that a candidate might receive, but the numerical
turnout. For example, the Democratic nominee could be expected
to receive approximately 90% of blacks who actually vote, and that
might not change much from recent previous elections, but what
percentage of the total of black voters will actually turn out?
Is it reasonable to think that Hillary Clinton will draw a black
turnout similar to the turnout that Barack Obama drew? In the
case of Hispanic and Jewish voters, there is some evidence that
the percentages who will vote for the Democrat or the Republican
might actually change somewhat. In the recent past, more women
have voted than men, but what if in 2016 there are more male
voters than women who go to the polls? I suggest that the likely
turnout of NLVs significantly upsets the polling models we have
accepted in the past.
I have lived through an election such as this one might be, albeit
one on the state level. Even those who do not live and vote in
Minnesota might well remember the extraordinary upset election
of non-traditional politician Jesse Ventura in 1998. A month
before the election, every poll had him in single digits against
two very well-known major party candidates. Even very late
polls only indicated that he was gaining substantially, but not
that he would win. In fact, this election had a major influx of
NLVs --- virtually all models of voter turnout were broken.
For several weeks both national and state polls indicated that Mrs.
Clinton has a growing lead over Mr. Trump. Most recent polls
have indicated that this lead has narrowed notably. In at least one
major poll, Mr. Trump is now ahead, and in others, the race is a
virtual tie. Even assuming that most polls are now composed of
LVs, how many of them are accurately polling NLVs?
Many of my colleagues are depending on the polls to analyze this
election, particularly the presidential election. A number of them
have already concluded that the election is already over, and that
the only question is about the size of Hillary Clinton’s victory.
She might indeed win, and might even win by a big margin, but I
would suggest that this is not proven by any polls we now have.
In fact, if my contention about “new likely voters” is accurate, and
barring the unforeseen (always possibly in a cycle like this one),
I think the voting patterns of 2016 indicate that the election could
be heading for an historic upset of the political assumptions and
models most of us now use.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.