Exit poll error? It’s the Shy Tory Factor, not the Bradley Effect

While early exit polls showed Sen. Barack Obama leading in the Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary, and broadcast and cable news networks consequently delayed calling a winner in the election, when the actual ballots were counted Sen. Hillary Clinton had carried the Keystone State by some 9 percentage points.

Some pundits quickly suggested that the gap between the exit polls and the final tally reflected the Bradley Effect—white voters telling pollsters they had voted for the black candidate, when in fact they had not (an effect first identified in California’s 1982 gubernatorial election lost narrowly by Tom Bradley, an African-American—hence the name.) It wasn’t the first time in Campaign 2008 that Obama’s strong unweighted exit poll numbers did not translate into actual votes—the Illinois Senator had “underperformed” in New Hampshire and in several Super Tuesday states, according to a compilation of early exit polls by Brendan Loy. Loy further noted that: “… Obama generally does 7-8 points worse in the actual results than he did in the leaked, unweighted exit polls.”

But it’s unlikely that the color of the candidates caused the exit poll problems. Instead, it appears that the Shy Tory Factor influenced the exit polls in Pennsylvania, a global phenomenon that has surfaced in numerous past elections where race wasn’t a consideration. The Shy Tory Factor is when conservative voters provide misleading answers to pollsters or refuse to participate in exit polls (where it is called “non-response bias” by pollsters). It has been seen in elections in England, France, Italy, Australia and the U.S. More conservative candidates perform better at the ballot box than they do in pre-vote polls and exit polling. (Reuters, for example, noted that “exit polls have not always proved reliable in Italy” in reporting on the recent election of conservative candidate Silvio Berlusconi.)

What’s behind it? The prevailing theory is that these Shy Tory, or Shy Conservative, voters opt out of polling, or offer misleading answers, because they don’t view the elite media, who sponsor the opinion and exit polls, as truly neutral. They realize that their candidate (Berlusconi, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John Howard) is not the choice of liberal reporters or mainstream commentators and consequently they are more reluctant to share their preference with intrusive pollsters.

The practical effect of the Shy Tory Factor is to skew poll results. Take Pennsylvania. While Clinton supporters may not be “Tories” in ideological terms, they are older, less-educated, and more likely to resent the media anointment of Obama. Their motives for refusing match the Shy Tory model. If these Clinton voters shied away from exit polls, it means backers of the other candidate (Obama) were oversampled. The Clinton-Obama race had further complications. Refusal rates for exit polls are historically greater among older voters to start with. Most exit poll takers are young (students, etc.), and it would not be surprising if—despite being trained to avoid interviewer-caused selection bias—these temporary workers gravitated to polling younger voters, who have continued to favor Obama.

Vote fraud?

There is, of course, a third possible explanation for the disconnect between the exit polls and the tabulated vote—that of election fraud. After the New Hampshire primary, some on the Left suggested that Sen. Clinton’s victory involved rigged voting machines, and others (such as posters on The Brad Blog and TruthDig ) have questioned the validity of the Pennsylvania primary as well.

A common misunderstanding about the accuracy of exit polls has contributed to these conspiracy theories. (“Mystery Pollster” Mark Blumenthal has researched exit polling’s historical inaccuracy.) They simply aren’t a valid way to audit elections. For starters, exit polls carry a margin of error—supposedly about 3 percent in national elections, when all else goes well, and higher in primaries. And like all polling, exit polls rely on a representative sample of voters that is projected to all voters (which is what the “weighting” process is all about). As can be seen with the Shy Tory Factor, when given voters won’t participate, it skews the sample. (See this interview with Joe Lenski of Edison Media Research for a frank assessment of the problems with exit poll samples). The exit poll refusal rate has been growing in the U.S. It was an average 35% nationwide in the 2004 presidential election and is higher for older voters and in more conservative areas of the country.

These flaws were ignored by Democratic activists and bloggers when, as evidence of fraud, they pointed to those pivotal states where exit polls had projected Sen. John Kerry as the winner but where President Bush triumphed when the actual votes were tallied. In explaining the discrepancy, Edison/Mitofsky Research (the firm that conducted the 2004 exit polls) concluded that Republican voters had refused to participate in exit polling in greater numbers than Democrats, leading to an overestimation of the Kerry vote totals. Further voter sampling problems surfaced in the 2006 Congressional election exit polls.

None of this will, however, convince the conspiracy buffs who believe that the Clinton machine—borrowing alleged Republican tactics—manipulated the primary voting process in states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania by a conspiracy targeting electronic voting machines. Such a vote fraud enterprise in practice would require the complicity of hundreds of election officials, computer technicians, etc., spread across numerous precincts, and would also demand a breathtaking level of coordination and planning. And everyone involved would be committing numerous felonies as well. But if you believed the Republicans were capable of such crimes in 2004, it’s not as hard to believe that the Clinton campaign would engage in vote fraud as well.

A media creation

There are some ironies in these exit poll problems. Exit polls, after all, are a media creation. They allow network anchors and political commentators to pontificate about voter preferences and beliefs. They allegedly tell us how given groups (whites, blacks, Hispanics, liberals, conservatives, Catholics, Jews) voted, and why they voted the way the way they did (contributing, one could argue, to the public practice of identity politics). If media cheerleading for Obama has increased exit poll refusal rates among Clinton voters, then the lack of balance in the coverage of the Democratic race in 2008 has contributed to the margin of error in these surveys.

The Edison/Mitofsky Research folks don’t like to talk about refusal rates, because they know it raises questions about the validity of their exit polls. A strong argument can be made based on the 2004, 2006, and 2008 results that the accuracy of exit polls has been so compromised that they should be abandoned as an analytical tool in political news coverage. And other than a few media executives and polling firms, who would be sorry to see them go?

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

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New Hampshire’s recount and the Netroots’ culture of conspiracy

New Hampshire officials yesterday finished a hand recount of some 40% of the votes from the Granite State’s Democratic presidential primary, an election which featured Hillary Clinton’s dramatic victory over Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, the recount of paper ballots produced no significant change in the results. Clinton lost 25 votes and Obama dropped 5; officials said any errors during the primary voting process were human, and not a product of voting machine failure or fraud.

Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, who received a paltry 1.4 percent of the primary vote, had paid $27,000 for the partial recount. The diminutive Ohio Congressman, known for his belief in UFOs and left-of-center politics, had cited “serious and credible reports, allegations and rumors” about the electoral process, “unexplained disparities between hand-counted ballots and machine-counted ballots,” and “the stunning disparities between various ‘independent’ pre-election polls and the actual election results,” when he requested the recount.

But Kucinich’s call for a recount wasn’t, as he claimed, “about the integrity of the election process.” Rather, it reflected a culture of conspiracy that has enveloped the Netroots (the Democratic Party’s angry political activists and left-of-center bloggers who have organized through the Internet) since the disputed 2000 presidential election. In an ominous sign for centrist Democrats, the “allegations and rumors” circulating on “progressive” websites suggested that Clinton’s victory over Obama, the darling of the anti-war Left, had somehow involved fraudulent vote switches.

The Netroots buzzed about rigged Diebold optical scan voting machines (hence Kucinich’s focus on “machine-counted ballots”) and suppressed exit polls that had supposedly projected an Obama win. Diebold machines are a particular fixation of the Netroots, because, it is argued, their vote-tallying software can be easily hacked, and because Diebold’s executives have links to the GOP. New Hampshire simply recounted its optical scan sheets, validating the machine tabulations through this paper trail. (There are valid concerns about computer-based voting, especially touch-screen machines; malfunctions, lack of a paper audit trail, poor user design, and other issues have caused many states and localities to move towards optical scan technology and/or simple paper ballots.)

So who was behind this alleged vote fraud in New Hampshire? One Netroots theory suggested that the “Clinton Machine” or “Clinton Mafia” had rigged the vote for the former First Lady (who, ironically, once railed against the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”) Another sinister possibility, floated by cable television talk show host Bill Maher among others, was that the Republicans had cooked New Hampshire’s results because they feared Obama and preferred to run against Clinton as the Democratic candidate. The airing of these fantasies led Josh Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo, a self-described leftist, to muse despairingly about the “sullen childishness at work” of claiming “that any election that dramatically doesn’t go your way was stolen.”

The Netroots and vote fraud

Mainstream Democrats bear some culpability for the persistence of this conspiratorial world-view. They failed to distinguish between legitimate concerns about shoddy voting practices in the 2004 presidential election and overwrought claims that the GOP had “stolen the election” by disenfranchising minorities and rigging voting machines in Ohio. For example, Sen. Barbara Boxer joined Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones in formally objecting to the certification of Ohio’s electoral votes, a symbolic—and cynical—move designed to raise questions about the legitimacy of President Bush’s win. While a Democratic National Committee taskforce grudgingly conceded in June 2005 that there was no evidence of fraud in Ohio, the continuing harsh rhetoric of Democratic leaders about Republican electoral tactics encouraged activists on Netroots sites like Democratic Underground and Daily Kos to continue to spin their vote-fraud theories.

A common misunderstanding about the accuracy of exit polls contributed to the 2004 election conspiracy theories. That exit polls carry a margin of error (about 3 percent in national elections, when all else goes well) hasn’t been widely publicized. Exit polls also rely on representative voter samples, and when large numbers of voters refuse to participate (a growing trend in the U.S.), it can skew the sample and distort any resulting projections. They simply aren’t a valid way to audit elections.

These flaws were ignored by Democratic activists and bloggers when, as evidence of fraud, they pointed to those pivotal states where exit polls had projected Sen. John Kerry as the winner but where President Bush triumphed when the actual votes were tallied. In explaining the discrepancy, Edison/Mitofsky Research (the firm that conducted the 2004 exit polls) concluded that Republican voters had refused to participate in exit polling in greater numbers than Democrats, leading to an overestimation of the Kerry vote totals. (Pollsters have dubbed the tendency of more conservative voters to shy away from revealing their voting preference the Shy Tory, or Shy Republican, Factor.) Further voter sampling problems surfaced in the 2006 Congressional elections exit polls.

Those New Hampshire “discrepencies”

Just as in the 2004 and 2006 elections, there are plausible explanations for all of the New Hampshire “discrepancies” cited by Rep. Kucinich and the Netroots. Obama did garner higher totals in rural places where votes were hand counted, and Clinton did better in urban areas with electronic voting machines. But Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee also showed more strength in rural areas than in larger cities, while Mitt Romney fared better in urban areas. As Ron Paul, the Republican/libertarian candidate, noted in dismissing suggestions of fraud: “Results almost always vary between urban and rural areas.” Voters in different places may prefer different candidates. Demographics represent a more likely cause for any geographical disparities than any sinister plot to hack voting machine software to shift votes from one candidate to another. (It should be noted that Republican Albert Howard of Michigan, who received 44 votes in the primary, is paying for a recount of the GOP ballots.)

And the gap between opinion polls and final Democratic vote wasn’t as stunning as Kucinich has suggested. While pre-vote polls favored Obama, polling firms apparently stopped surveying too early, missing a late swing to Clinton by women voters. The polls also relied on outdated turnout models. What about those exit polls allegedly favoring Obama? Salon’s Farhad Manjoo reports that it wasn’t so: news network analysts regarded the Clinton-Obama race as too close to call based on the available survey data.

If Kucinich had looked at the New Hampshire results dispassionately he could have saved his struggling campaign the $27,000 it ponied up for the recount. But the Ohio Congressman is pandering to the Netroots. He is now calling for a “complete and accurate recount of all ballots,” justified, he says, by the slightly changed vote totals in the initial recount, to be paid for by New Hampshire. That unwillingness to accept the results isn’t surprising. Even before the recount had commenced, BlackBoxVoting.org had begun questioning the chain of custody of the ballots. After all, the thinking goes, why wouldn’t the sinister forces that fixed an election, rig the recount to cover their tracks?

Such paranoia stems from eight years of powerlessness, and eight years of assuming the worst about the country’s leadership. This Netroots culture of conspiracy and its “sullen childishness” will prove problematic for the Democrats in the future. If Campaign 2008 features any more narrow primary victories by Clinton over Obama, look for fresh allegations of vote fraud from the angry Left. If this scenario unfolds, and Clinton nevertheless wins the nomination, will her victory be regarded as illegitimate by elements of her own party? And what might that mean in November?

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Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved