US: Turnout of voters matters more than swing voters, candidates or policies?

Polls are trying to analyse the wrong things – that’s why they can be inaccurate.

This is from the US two party polarised political system and may not apply so much under MMP in New Zealand, but it’s an interesting theory – it’s not swing voters who decide elections, and it’s not so much candidates and policies. US elections can be decided by which voters are most motivated to get out to stop the other side winning.

This would mean that in 2016 right wing voters were motivated more against Hilary Clinton winning than for Donald Trump. And left wing voters were more ambivalent, with many seeing both Clinton and trump as undesirable.

The 2018 mid-term election favoured Democrat candidates because the motivation to react against trump had strengthened (and there was no ‘Clinton’).

Politico: An Unsettling New Theory: There Is No Swing Voter

Rachel Bitecofer’s radical new theory predicted the midterms spot-on. So who’s going to win 2020?

What if there aren’t really American swing voters—or not enough, anyway, to pick the next president? What if it doesn’t matter much who the Democratic nominee is? What if there is no such thing as “the center,” and the party in power can govern however it wants for two years, because the results of that first midterm are going to be bad regardless?

What if the Democrats’ big 41-seat midterm victory in 2018 didn’t happen because candidates focused on health care and kitchen-table issues, but simply because they were running against the party in the White House?

What if the outcome in 2020 is pretty much foreordained, too?

To the political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, all of that is almost certainly true, and that has made her one of the most intriguing new figures in political forecasting this year.

Keep in mind that they invented political forecasters to make economic forecasters and weather forecasters look good.

Bitecofer, a 42-year-old professor at Christopher Newport University in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, was little known in the extremely online, extremely male-dominated world of political forecasting until November 2018. That’s when she nailed almost to the number the nature and size of the Democrats’ win in the House, even as other forecasters went wobbly in the race’s final days

And today her model tells her the Democrats are a near lock for the presidency in 2020, and are likely to gain House seats and have a decent shot at retaking the Senate.

Bitecofer’s theory, when you boil it down, is that modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place.

If she’s right, it wouldn’t just blow up the conventional wisdom; it would mean that much of the lucrative cottage industry of political experts—the consultants and pollsters and (ahem) the reporters—is superfluous, an army of bit players with little influence over the outcome. Actually, worse than superfluous: That whole industry of experts is generally wrong.

The experts do seem to be more often wrong than right.

The classic view is that the pool of American voters is basically fixed: About 55 percent of eligible voters are likely to go to the polls, and the winner is determined by the 15 percent or so of “swing voters” who flit between the parties. So a general election campaign amounts to a long effort to pull those voters in to your side.

“The idea that there is this informed, engaged American population that is watching these political events and watching their elected leaders and assessing their behavior and making a judgment.”

“And it is just not true.”

In 2016, the election that truly embarrassed the experts, Bitecofer was teaching in her new job and didn’t put together a forecast. She doesn’t pretend she saw it coming:

She says she was as surprised Trump won as anyone else, but what struck her in examining the results, and what she saw as getting lost in the postelection commentary, was exactly how many people voted third party—for the Greens, the Libertarians or Evan McMullin, a former CIA operative who was running on behalf of the “Never Trump” wing of the Republican Party.

Hillary Clinton had run an entire campaign built around classic assumptions: She was trying to pick off Republicans and Republican-leaning independents appalled by Trump. So she chose a bland white man, Tim Kaine, as a running mate; it also explained her policy-lite messaging and her ads.

But in the end, almost all of those voters stuck with the GOP. The voters who voted third party should have been Democratic voters—they were disproportionately young, diverse and college educated—but they were turned off by the divisive Democratic primary, and the Clinton camp made no effort to activate them in the general election.

The anti-Clinton vote was stronger than the WTF anti-Trump vote.

When 2018 rolled around, she saw what was coming: “College educated white men, and especially college educated white women,” she said, “were going to be on fucking fire.”

It didn’t matter who was running; it mattered who was voting.

Negative partisanship

Bitecofer’s view of the electorate is driven, in part, by a new way to think about why Americans vote the way they do. She counts as an intellectual mentor Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University who popularized the concept of “negative partisanship,” the idea that voters are more motivated to defeat the other side than by any particular policy goals.

In a piece explaining his work in POLITICO Magazine, Abramowitz wrote: “Over the past few decades, American politics has become like a bitter sports rivalry, in which the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose.

Republicans might not love the president, but they absolutely loathe his Democratic adversaries. And it’s also true of Democrats, who might be consumed by their internal feuds over foreign policy and the proper role of government were it not for Trump.”

Bitecofer took this insight and mapped it across the country.

“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates. What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated,” she said.

But it must be more complex than this.

“It’s the big discussion in election forecasting and political science right now,” said Kyle Kondik, communications director at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and an editor at its forecasting site, Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “As I look at it, there are just a lot of different things going on in the electorate. There are a lot of folks who switched from Obama 2012 to Trump 2016. I think that’s pretty clear, but there also were turnout problems for Democrats in these places, and you had people switching or defecting to third parties. The more you learn about this stuff, the less you feel like you have a grasp on it.”

Sam Wang, a neuroscientist at Princeton University who since 2004 has doubled as an elections forecaster…agrees. The percentage of people who swing in and out of the electorate is closer to 10 percent, according to his data, which couldn’t explain the massive swings some counties saw from 2012 to 2016.

As for Bitecofer’s overall theory, Wang says, “It is the detailed version of something that is generally appreciated—that over the last 20 years the big phenomenon in American politics is that Americans have become much more predictable about who they vote for,” he said. “The broad insight is the deep truth of our time, but it is not that novel.”

This bit seems odd – election results are virtually decided before candidates are known.

“What I am saying is that almost all of this shit is set in stone for three years, that almost none of the shit that people are hanging onto, in terms of daily articles, or polls, or the economy or incumbency or ideology is really worth that much.”

Once you know the shape of the electorate, she argues, you can pretty much tell how that electorate is going to vote. And the shape of the electorate in 2018, and 2020, for that matter, was determined on the night of November 8, 2016. The new electorate, as she forecasts it, is made up mostly of people who want a president named anything but Donald Trump, competing with another group that fears ruin should anyone but Donald Trump be president.

But if Hillary Clinton suddenly entered this year’s presidential nomination race and was selected surely that would change things considerably. Maybe. Now left wing voters have experienced Trump in action as president voting against him may be stronger than voting against Clinton.

Although the ranks of independents are growing, up to 40 percent by some surveys, Bitecofer says campaigns have spent entirely too much time courting them, and the media has spent entirely too much caring about their preferences. The real “swing” doesn’t come from voters who choose between two parties, she argues, but from people who choose to vote, or not (or, if they do vote, vote for a third party).

The actual percentage of swing voters in any given national election according to her own analysis is closer to 6 or 7 percent than the 15 or 20 most analysts think are out there, and that larger group, Bitecofer says, are “closet partisans” who don’t identify with a party but still vote with one.

It should be easier to motivate people to vote who already lean your way than swinging someone from one side to the other.

This year’s election?

Bitecofer has already released her 2020 model, and is alone among election forecasters in giving the Democrats—who, of course, do not yet have a nominee—the 270 electoral votes required to claim the presidency without a single toss-up state flipping their way.

And in a view that goes against years of accepted political wisdom that says the choice of a running mate doesn’t much matter, the key she says, to a 2020 Democratic victory will lie less in who is at the top of the ticket than in who gets chosen as veep.

The reason Trump won in 2016 was not, she says, because of a bunch of disaffected blue-collar former Democrats in the Midwest; it is because a combination of Jill Stein, Gary Johnson and Evan McMullin pulled away more than 6 percent of voters in a state like Michigan. These were anti-Hillary voters, yes—but they were anti-Trump voters especially, and they are likely to come to the Democratic fold this time around if they’re given a reason.

Trump appears to understand Bitecofer’s theories as well as anyone in politics. He leans into the divisions and negative partisanship. In 2018, Trump turned the midterms into a referendum on him, warning that Democrats would bring crime and chaos into their neighborhoods if they won. There was a turnout surge among Trump voters in some places, but it wasn’t enough to offset the Democratic gains.

Bitecofer already sees the Trump playbook coming together for 2020: warning of a demographic takeover by nonwhites in order to boost turnout among noncollege white voters, and trying to sow chaos in the Democratic ranks so that supporters of a losing primary candidate either stay home or support a third-party candidate.

Bitecofer doesn’t see much of a downside to a candidate like Bernie Sanders. But she doesn’t see much of an upside either, since ideology isn’t as big a motivator as identity, and since Sanders did not in fact bring hordes of new voters to the polls in 2016.

There is some risk to nominating Joe Biden, who could be seen as a candidate of the status quo against a disrupter like Trump, but either way, the key will be to do their version of what Trump does to them every day: make the prospect of four more years of Republican rule seem like a threat to the Republic, one that could risk everything Democratic-leaning voters hold dear.

“If you want to win the election, you have to be able to frame your candidacy in a way that reminds voters that Trump is an abnormality that must be excised,” she said.

While the Trump campaign playbook is well known now, the Democrats are just getting into the serious part of nominating a candidate. How they will campaign is unknown. Surely they can still stuff things up as the Clinton campaign did.

But those who may be motivated to vote against Trump may already be largely determined. Perhaps.

 

‘Don’t knows’ and swing voters

Media reporting on the recent polls neglect (as usual) a major factor – the ‘don’t knows’. This group of potential voters are likely to be a major deciding factor in the election but they are usually ignored, they don’t make good headlines.

The One News/Colmar poll had 13% ‘Don’t Know’ and 5% ‘Refused’. That’s nearly one in five who didn’t express a voting inclination.

But poll reports ignore these people in their analysis. They leave them out.  I can’t even find the number of ‘don’t knows’ in the 3 News/Reid Research poll.

And the initial number of ‘don’t know’ responses is higher, possibly twice as high according to pollster Andrew (grumpollie):

Most of the polls probe initially undecided voters (ie, ‘even though you’re don’t know, who would you be most likely to vote for?’). From the data I’ve seen, about 50% still say ‘don’t know’, the rest tend to be split along the same lines as those who have an initial preference. Even when you factor in likelihood to vote, that doesn’t really change.

It would be interesting to have the Don’t Knows analysed. There could be a number of categories like:

  • Don’t Care
  • Don’t Know Anything About Politics
  • Don’t Bother About It Until The Election
  • Follow Politics But Don’t Decide Until Election Day

I’m the last of those, I’ve always had a bit of interest in politics and evaluate the voting options and possible outcomes. The campaign gives you a lot more exposure of politicians and parties to evaluate, and things can change through the campaign, so the final decision is made on election day.

Polls are a useful part of the evaluation. Understanding what polls actually mean and don’t mean helps. Understanding that late swings are always on the cards also helps. Remember that no polls are taken on election day, they are snapshots of opinion prior to that so they cannot predict what will happen on election day, just sentiments at some point prior.

I think genuine thinking swing voters are an important part of the voter mix. We annoy the hell out of political activists who can’t understand a lack of blind dedication to their own cause. And we may frustrate pollsters.

We get called fence sitting wishy washy shallow flip flopping traitors – but we’re the ones who do a lot of the deciding in elections (along with the fence sitting wishy washy shallow flip floppers).

When you see National go from 21% in 2002 to 47% in 2011 it’s obvious there’s a large number of potential swing voters. And when you see 13% don’t knows – don’t forget that if people being polled weren’t pushed to make a choice the Don’t Knows number could be much higher.

Journalists like a few simple facts to build their sensations around. Hence:
“Winston Peters is likely to be kingmaker, according to a ONE News Colmar Brunton poll.” The poll has no idea what people will decide on one day in September.

3 News “And New Zealand First is on 4.9 percent. It is so close, but leader Winston Peters would not make it back. If he got that little bit extra to 5 percent, it would change everything.” That’s a current approximately 50/50 chance of NZ First making 5% but no guarantee at all that that would make them a ‘kingmaker’.

NZ First can easily swing significantly either way. And there’s a high chance of a late swing depending on how things stack up late in the campaign. Peters is practiced at spotting opportunities to get media attention and know the media will lap up his attention seeking, but that’s a gamble. The possibility of Labour+Greens+NZ First may scare swing voters off NZ First – or might have them flocking.

And if Peters had a significant health issue it really could change things a lot if not everything.

It depends on a lot of things we don’t know about yet – and the ‘don’t knows’ include pollsters and journalists.