How to Read the 2016 Presidential Polls
A little over a month ago, the national polls showed presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton leading presumptive Republican nominee Trump by double digits. Today, they are running neck and neck, with both leading in some polls – but usually within the margin of error.
How can that be? Are polls that unreliable?
No. It’s important to remember that polls are snapshots of public opinion at a given point of time. In this case, Republicans who backed other Republican candidates had coalesced behind Trump.
So, how does one read the numerous polls that will come out in the next 5+ months?
The first thing to remember is that not all polls are created equally.
In looking for reliability and accuracy, there are three things to remember: the group doing the polling, the group commissioning the polling, and the internals.
There has been an explosion of polling groups in the past few years as more campaigns use polling as a key part of their campaign. The result is that many new groups release results only to gain publicity for their firm. And, the more astounding the results, the more attention paid to it.
On the other hand, there are groups like Gallup and Harris, which have been doing polling for decades. They have a reputation to uphold and their methodology is painstaking, even if usually traditional. They can’t afford to ruin their reputation. These groups have a reputation for closely predicting the actual results of elections.
Then there are the groups commissioning the polling. Newspapers are a common customer for polling firms, but their results have to be taken with a grain of salt. Polling is usually done as part of a story and the poll results are often designed to fit the story. If, for instance, the story is about gun control, a poll may be commissioned that shows Americans in favor of stricter gun control. If a newspaper wants the presidential race to be seen as competitive, they can poll to show closer results.
Cost also has an impact on polling. Depending on who is surveyed and how many questions are asked, the cost of polling one person can run from less than a dollar to $100 for in depth surveys that take half an hour and ask dozens of questions.
Media polls frequently survey “adults”. These are usually the cheapest and least reliable in terms of how an election will turn out. In this case, the survey group simply asked the questions of whoever answers the phone. No other criteria are required. In these cases, results can even vary according to the time of the week the survey is done. Since not all adults are registered voters or even American citizens, these can be unreliable. They also trend more Democratic than election results.
One example Hoover/Golden State University poll that came out on Tuesday and showed Clinton leading Trump by 12% in California – a major lead. However, the poll looked at adults, which means it doesn’t reflect how California would vote. And, since surveys of adults lean Democratic in results, this means that California, although probably in the Clinton camp, is probably closer than 12%.
Another example is presidential job approval polls. A Gallup poll of adults that came out this week shows Obama’s job approval at 51% approve and 45% disapprove. An Economist Poll of registered voters last week showed 52% disapproval and 45% approval – nearly the exact opposite.
Political polling often only uses “registered voters.” However, that is even a bit unreliable. If the phone calls are random and the person who answers the phone is asked if they are registered to vote, they often say yes,, even if they aren’t registered. In order to avoid this, some polls actually work off a list of registered voters and their phone numbers. This is more reliable, but more expensive.
Registered voter surveys are more reliable than adult surveys. However, they trend more Democratic than actual election results.
An example of this sort of poll was a Quinnipiac poll that came out Wednesday. It showed Clinton leading Trump by 4%. However, it polled registered voters, which tends more Democratic. On the other hand, a Rasmussen poll of likely voters on May 19th showed Trump ahead by 5%.
This is a critical point. The best predictors of elections are those polls that survey only likely voters. These surveys work in either two ways. First, they can ask the voter a bank of several questions to determine their likelihood to vote in the election. The second is to only call voters whose voting record shows that they are very likely to vote. Again, this second method is more expensive.
That still doesn’t tell the whole story. Even if they look only at likely voters, you have to be careful with the polls. Some are better than others and you have to know what to look for.
The most important way to diagnose the quality of a poll is to look at party identification spreads. There is no better predictor of vote choice than party identification. That’s been true for as long as political polling has been done, and it is now a better predictor than ever. The two sides now break for their own candidates on about a 90/10 basis these days, and comparing a poll to recent exit polling can give us a good sense of whether or not it is oversampling a particular side. While we can’t know for sure exactly what the partisan spread will be this year, we can be pretty confident that the electorate this year will be less Democratic than it was in 2012.
Take this week’s Quinnipiac Survey that shows Clinton leading Trump by 4% amongst registered voters.
First, since it polled registered voters, we can assume that the percentage for Clinton is higher than it will be on Election Day. Another concern is that the news release has no breakdown of the respondents in terms of the party they belong to (or how many are independents). There were 1,561 registered voters polled and 678 were Democrats (43%). Traditionally, the number of Democrats is in the mid 30% range, so this is a heavily weighted Democratic sample, which means that it probably doesn’t reflect how the voters would vote.
Looking at party ID spread can give a good sense of how accurate the poll is. Partisan identification on Election Day is fairly stable and predictable. In the last few cycles, good Republican years tend to result in roughly equal party strength, e.g. 2004. Good Democratic years tend to be D+5 or more nationwide. All accounts suggest that this will be a good Republican year, which means polls whose statewide party identification spreads are closer to 2012 than 2014 or 2010 are probably over-sampling Democrats.
Registered voter polls are also less reliable this year because Republican voters are more enthusiastic, given the larger number of voters who voted in GOP primaries than Democratic primaries. Enthusiasm counts for a lot when it comes to actually turning out to vote. That’s why Clintons large lead amongst young voters and Blacks may not help her to win as young voters are less likely to vote and Black voters will not be as enthused to vote for Clinton as Obama.
Another factor, given the unpopularity of both Trump and Clinton are third parties. In the Quinnipiac poll, Clinton leads Trump by 4% in a two-way race, but only leads by 2% when the Green Party and Libertarian party presidential candidates are included.
However, traditionally, support for third party candidates sinks the closer one gets to the general election.
There is a clear divide amongst American voters. In a Clinton-Trump matchup, men go Republican 51 – 35 percent, while women go Democratic 54 – 30 percent. Republicans back Trump 86 – 4 percent and Democrats back Clinton 90 – 6 percent. Independent voters are divided, with 40 percent for Trump and 37 percent for Clinton.
This last number – Trump support amongst independents – should worry Clinton as independents traditionally hold the balance of power in American elections.
There is also a major split as to how the voters see Clinton and Trump. American voters say by 56 – 35 percent that Clinton is better prepared to be president than Trump; 51 – 37 percent that she is more intelligent and 47 – 36 percent that she has higher moral standards. But voters say 44 – 39 percent that Trump is more honest and trustworthy; 49 – 45 percent that he is a stronger leader and 48 – 39 percent that he is more inspiring.
Voters see Trump as better in handling the economy and fighting ISIS. But, they see Clinton as better in handling immigration and international crises.
But, we aren’t near the election yet and we can expect a lot of movement in the next five months. Both candidates have wrapped up their respective bases and the fight will be for the independents. The poll indicates that Republicans and Democrats are ready to line up behind their likely standard-bearers, with 86 percent of Republicans supporting Trump and 90 percent of Democrats backing Clinton.
Both candidates have their strengths, but in elections, certain issues like the economy usually have the biggest impact. In that regard, Trump has an edge. And, that explains why Hillary said that she would put her husband, former president Bill Clinton, in charge of the economy.
But, the real battle may be on likability. Both candidates have high unpopularity ratings (Clinton 57%, Trump 59%). In the end, the candidate that lowers that number down the most may end up moving into the White House in January.
ISIS Isn’t an Existential Threat to America
By John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart
May 27, 2016
In 2014, a militant group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIL, but more generally known as ISIS, burst into official and public attention with some military victories in Iraq and Syria in the middle of the year—particularly taking over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. From the outset, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) have deemed the group to be an existential threat to the United States. President Barack Obama has repeatedly insisted that this extreme characterization is overblown, but he has clearly lost the debate. A poll conducted a few weeks ago asked the 83 percent of its respondents who said they closely followed news stories about ISIS whether the group presented “a serious threat to the existence or survival of the US.” Fully 77 percent agreed, more than two-thirds of them strongly. However, although the vicious group certainly presents a threat to the people under its control and in its neighborhood, and although it can contribute damagingly to the instability in the Middle East that has followed serial intervention there by the American military, it scarcely presents an existential threat to the United States. Actually, in fact, it seems to be in considerable decline.
The Changing Security Structure in the Middle East
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 31, 2016
Russia remains the world’s second largest military power. It too is modernizing key elements of its forces, and it too is changing its power projection capabilities. This became all too clear from Russia’s use of cruise missiles, bombers, and precision-guided ordinance during its intervention in Syria, and its deployment of the S400 air and missile defense system after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter that entered Turkish air space. Russia then deployed attack helicopters and highly accurate multiple rocket launchers. Russia began building up its naval and air base capabilities in Syria, while simultaneously showing that a combination of its air and land assets could reverse some Arab rebel gains against pro-Assad forces, as well as attack ISIS. Once again, however, Russia stands to gain the most from selectively using its military power and influence in ways that demonstrate its reemergence as a major active power, giving it leverage in other regions that are of greater strategic interest – such as Russia’s “near abroad” that ranges from Turkey to Scandinavia, and in the region that ranges from Central and South Asia to the Chinese-Russian border.
Mosul After the Islamic State: The Kurdistan Region’s Strategy
By Renad Mansour
May 20, 2016
The liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, remains a top priority for most actors involved in the campaign against the so-called Islamic State. A major ally in this battle is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its peshmerga military forces. The KRG is unlikely to send peshmerga units into Mosul itself, as it’s a predominantly Sunni Arab city that the Kurdish leadership neither claims nor contests to be part of its territory—a prerequisite for direct peshmerga involvement. Rather, the focus is on shaping the political environment there for after the Islamic State is removed. In anticipation of the eventual power vacuum in Mosul, the KRG has begun to plan for what comes next in the city, only an hour’s drive from Erbil, the region’s capital.
Bahrain’s Game of Detainee Diplomacy With Washington
By Simon Henderson
June 1, 2016
Apparently responding to U.S. and other international pressure, on May 31, the Bahraini government released Zainab al-Khawaja, a dual Danish-Bahraini national who had been sentenced in March to three years in prison for tearing up photos of the monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The case of Khawaja, the daughter of a rights activist serving a life sentence, had achieved particular prominence because she was being detained with her one-year-old son. Her freedom came a day after the sentence for incitement of an opposition leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, was more than doubled from four to nine years. Generally, Washington is caught in a bind, wanting to encourage a political process in Bahrain, whose majority Shiite population feels excluded by the Sunni royal family, while maintaining good relations with the government, which allows a limited democracy. Only in recent months have tensions subsided following clashes between demonstrators and security forces in 2011. The U.S. base and the several thousand service personnel stationed there have avoided becoming a political issue, but the U.S. embassy website continues to show a map with large tracts of Shiite villages in the island’s north as permanently off-limits to staff who are U.S. citizens, while several other areas can only be visited during daylight hours.
Losing by Winning: The Rupture of the Israeli Center
By David Makovsky and Dennis Ross
May 31, 2016
As the June 3 Paris peace conference approaches, the recent effort to broaden Israel’s government may emerge as one of the more consequential moves of Binyamin Netanyahu’s premiership — not for what it produced, but rather for what may have been foreclosed. Much of the public commentary on the latest developments has focused on his decision to replace the experienced, steady, and trusted defense minister Moshe Yaalon with Moldovan-born arch-nationalist Avigdor Liberman, who has not hid his disdain for Netanyahu or his desire to become prime minister in the future. Indeed, the stakes are significant given Liberman’s controversial statements on Israeli Arabs, Egypt, and the need to reoccupy Gaza; in the immediate sense, Netanyahu brought in his former aide turned rival in order to widen his very narrow coalition majority from 61 to 66 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Assessing the New AKP Cabinet
By Soner Cagaptay and Cem Yolbulan
May 31, 2016
Following the May 5 resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, delegates of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) elected Binali Yildirim, the former transportation minister and one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s closest political allies, as AKP chair and prime minister. On May 24, following Erdogan’s approval, Yildirim announced Turkey’s sixty-fifth government. The new cabinet includes twenty-seven ministers, including the prime minister and five deputy prime ministers. Twelve ministers have been reassigned, and eight new members have been added. The cabinet’s composition reveals important, and troubling, trends for Turkish politics and the AKP, among them the regionalization of political power and the near exclusion of Kurds and women.
Water Issues Are Crucial to Stability in Syria’s Euphrates Valley
By Fabrice Balanche
May 26, 2016
Military movements in eastern Syria suggest that a major offensive will take place this year to eradicate the Islamic State (IS) presence in the area. The Syrian army is advancing toward Deir al-Zour and Tabqa with the help of Russian aviation, while U.S.-supported Kurdish and Arab fighters under the flag of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are closing in from the north. Meanwhile, the Arab tribes living under IS rule in the Euphrates Valley have pledged allegiance to the group for now, but they would likely abandon it if outside forces posed a serious threat. Accordingly, the time has come to prepare for “the day after IS” in the Euphrates area, particularly regarding the various economic issues that will be key to local political stabilization. Regardless of who controls the area next — whether the Assad regime, the SDF, or other players — they will face the problem of water scarcity, which has long driven the area’s political and economic dynamics.