Stuart Elway: Why my poll results differ

The longtime pollster explains differences in methods and assumptions that might cause his surveys to find more undecideds and fewer Dino Rossi supporters in the race for Washington governor.
<a href="/static/story_image/elway_poll.jpg">Enlarge</a>.

Enlarge. Chuck Taylor


The rematch between Gov. Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi is either as close as it was four years ago — or not. There have been 15 polls published on this race since the first of July, including three Elway Polls. Among the last 12 polls conducted by national pollsters watching this race, the average is 49 percent to 48 percent, in favor of Gregoire. The Elway Poll's three-month average is 51-39, which includes the most recent version, of Oct. 19. What's up?

One explanation is our finding of 10 percent still undecided. The other polls average 3 percent undecided. The Elway Poll numbers for Gregoire (average 51) are close to those of the national pollsters (49), well within the margin of error. The difference has been in our consistently lower numbers for Rossi and our higher undecided numbers. Why would that be?

The reasons for different survey estimates for the candidates have to do with the mechanics of the surveys. There are differences between The Elway Poll and the national pollsters [PDF] as to who we sample, who asks the questions, and how the questions are asked. The chief suspect in the mystery of the undecideds is the difference in the way the question is worded. Not all of the national pollsters reveal their question wording, but most ask a variation of this: "If the 2008 election for governor of Washington were held today, would you vote for — Republican Dino Rossi or Democrat Christine Gregoire?" We ask, "As things stand today in the race for governor, for whom are you inclined to vote between Christine Gregoire, who prefers the Democratic Party, and Dino Rossi, who prefers the GOP Party."

Note two subtle but not unimportant differences. First, we do not ask the respondent to pretend that the election is today. We ask who they are "inclined to vote for." Also, we do not push undecideds to indicate which way they "lean." Our method typically results in a larger undecided total in our surveys, which, in turn, results in a wider gap between the candidates. Second, while others identify the candidates as Republican or Democrat, the Elway Poll identifies the candidates as they appear on the ballot. Thus, Rossi was listed as "prefers the GOP party."

We found in our June survey that 25 percent of the registered voters did not know what "GOP" (Grand Old Party) stands for. This confusion may contribute to the higher number of undecided voters in our poll. It also may depress the Rossi total. In last week's poll, 12 percent of respondents did not know that Rossi is a Republican. Of those, only 15 percent planned to vote for him. On the other hand, of those who did know his affiliation, three times as many, 45 percent, planned to vote for him.

The outcome of the race will depend on these undecided voters and new voters.

Allocating undecided respondents is always a challenge for pollsters. One way is to assume that late-deciding voters will break for the challenger by as much as three to one. That would be the most generous to Rossi, but it is not an unwarranted assumption. So give Rossi 75 percent of the undecideds in our last poll and Gregoire leads by 53-47.

Second, the new voters. New voter registration here and across the country is breaking all records. The profile of the electorate is changing faster than the polls can measure. It is not just the demogrpahics of the new voters, but finding them in the first place. Younger voters are far more likely to be cell-phone-only users, which makes them more difficult to contact by conventional survey research. Pollsters everywhere are losing sleep over what these new voters might do to their models this year.

The common assumption is that the new voters are overwhelmingly likely to vote Democratic. Notably, our October poll had the highest proportion of Democrats in the 16-year history of the Elway Poll: 46 percent said they would register as a Democrat if they had to register by party in order to vote. The number of Democrats has been rising in Washington, as it has nationally, so it is possible that we just detected the surge. But 46 percent may be too high, so to temper that single poll result, we can average the proportions over the last three months. That results in 43 percent Democrats, 29 percent Republicans, and 28 percent independents in Washington.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 28, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

If 25% of registered (and, I assume, not necessarily likely) voters doesn't know what the GOP is, that just points up the danger of policies like "motor-voter" that give voter registrations to clueless idiots who don't bother to inform themselves of even the most rudimentary facts concerning elections. I'd be interested to know how many of those voters knew what the "donkey party" or "elephant party" were. I'd bet it's about the same percentage. People who care about the issues should vote. People who don't care enough to even know what the parties call themselves should do us all a favor and stay home.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Oct 28, 12:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article, Stuart. This is certainly the most informative article I've read on the art and science of polling.

I can see the argument for asking for voters' preferences rather than asking them a hypothetical question. Historically, have there been consistent differences in the accuracy of polls that use these different wordings?

Sean

Posted Tue, Oct 28, 6:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Nice post Stuart. It looks like the Obama surge will materialize. Not to be confused with the surge McCain endorsed. Looks close. But: today its is advantage Gregoire.

Jan

Posted Wed, Oct 29, 6:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Great piece, I like the way you adjust narrowly in your directly reported results and then do a bit more speculative bit of adjustment in your analytical artical.

I do also recall that Republican's claim you have a Demo bias.

Besides the speculative behavior of undecided's and young voters, there is a third class that merits speculation - the traditional democratic voter that won't admit they are voting against Gregoire. I suspect most of these will fall in age between Mr. Elway's generation and the so-called younger voters.

Again, thanks for a great piece.

-Douglas Tooley
http://motleytools.com/blog

Posted Sun, Nov 2, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

The Democrats are running one of the most overleveraged media campaigns in history.

Barack Obama has not won a single big state primary.

He has two years in the Senate.

Yet, somehow every Big City newspaper endorsed him. Why? Because their circulations have shrunk down to the inner core of the inner core city dwellers.

Same with all Democrats...they are using the perception of former media giants as being representative in an age of blogs and streaming media on the Internet and trying to parlay that into majorities.

jabailo

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