Why Were The Polls So Wrong About Obama v. Hillary ?

Note: The following article is a little more politically wonky than I have been trying to post here lately, and doesn’t really touch on libertarian ideas all that much. Nonetheless, it touches on some of the biggest news of the day so I felt it worthwhile to share

ABC’s Gary Langer takes a stab at answering the question that people will be asking a lot over the next week or so:

There will be a serious, critical look at the final pre-election polls in the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire; that is essential. It is simply unprecedented for so many polls to have been so wrong. We need to know why.

But we need to know it through careful, empirically based analysis. There will be a lot of claims about what happened – about respondents who reputedly lied, about alleged difficulties polling in biracial contests. That may be so. It also may be a smokescreen – a convenient foil for pollsters who’d rather fault their respondents than own up to other possibilities – such as their own failings in sampling and likely voter modeling.


In the end there may be no smoking gun. Those polls may have been accurate, but done in by a superior get-out-the-vote effort, or by very late deciders whose motivations may or may not ever be known. They may have been inaccurate because of bad modeling, compromised sampling, or simply an overabundance of enthusiasm for Obama on the heels of his Iowa victory that led his would-be supporters to overstate their propensity to turn out.

Despite the lack of any real evidence at this point, Mickey Kaus puts forward a few theories of his own:

1. Bradley Effect: It seemed like a nice wonky little point when Polipundit speculated on the Reverse Bradley Effect–the idea that Iowa’s public caucuses led Dem voters to demonstrate their lack of prejudice by caucusing for Obama. Now this is the CW of the hour.

The theory behind this reverse Bradley Effect is that Obama did better in Iowa than New Hampshire because Iowa’s Caucuses are open and public, whereas New Hampshire has a secret ballot. Iowa voters, the theory goes, would be more likely to vote for Obama so as not to appear racists in front of their fellow voters. On the other hand, New Hampshire voters, in the privacy of the voting booth are free to exercise their prejudices.

The problems with this theory are two-fold. First, these are liberal Democrats we’re talking about here, the idea that they harbor some secret racism doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Second, Obama’s final numbers in New Hampshire were basically the same as what he was polling; he lost because Hillary was able to tap into a well of support that, somehow, got missed by the polls — if the Bradley Effect were the cause, we would expect to see Obama’s numbers go down. Since that didn’t happen, this theory doesn’t make sense.

2. Lazio Effect. No ganging up on the girl! First, Edwards turns on her in the debate. Then Obama says she’s merely “likeable enough.” Then the press disparages her anger, mocks her campaign and gloats over its troubles. They made her cry! And then that mean macho John Edwards goes and says the crying makes her unfit to be president. (I was told voter leaving Edwards in the closing hours went disproportionately to Hillary, not Obama.)

Did the crying jag win the election for Hillary ? That’s been a topic of conversation today that even Maureen Dowd has picked up on:

Bill Clinton was known for biting his lip, but here was Hillary doing the Muskie. Certainly it was impressive that she could choke up and stay on message.

She won her Senate seat after being embarrassed by a man. She pulled out New Hampshire and saved her presidential campaign after being embarrassed by another man. She was seen as so controlling when she ran for the Senate that she had to be seen as losing control, as she did during the Monica scandal, before she seemed soft enough to attract many New York voters.

Getting brushed back by Barack Obama in Iowa, her emotional moment here in a cafe and her chagrin at a debate question suggesting she was not likable served the same purpose, making her more appealing, especially to women, particularly to women over 45.

The Obama campaign calculated that they had the women’s vote over the weekend but watched it slip away in the track of her tears.

Rush Limbaugh is talking right now and he’s basically agreeing with Maureen Dowd about this.

James Joyner points out a problem with this theory:

9 points for crying? A rise of nearly a third? That seems incredibly unlikely

Frankly, I’ve got to agree. I’m well aware that people base their votes on irrational things sometimes, but the idea that a three minute You Tube video changed the course of an election, and perhaps history, in 24 hours seems hard to believe.

Speaking of irrational reasons to explain what happened, this one is totally arbitrary but probably has merit:

Without a doubt, a big source of the discrepancy between the pre-election surveys and the election outcome in New Hampshire is the order of candidates’ names on the ballot and in the surveys.

Our analysis of all recent primaries in New Hampshire showed that there was always a big primacy effect — big-name, big-vote-getting candidates got 3 percent or more votes more when listed first on the ballot than when listed last.


I’ll bet that Clinton got at least 3 percent more votes than Obama simply because she was listed close to the top.

Considering that Clinton’s margin of victory was 3%, the fact that her name was first on the ballot may be what put her over the top.

Kaus continues with this:

Jerry Skurnik’s “Two Electorate” theory holds that voters who don’t follow politics are much less informed than they used to be, which causes polls to shift rapidly when they do inform themselves. Put these two together and you’ve got a vast uninformed pool of voters that only begins to make up its mind until the very last minute–after the last poll is taken, maybe–and then reaches its decision by furiously ingesting information at a Feileresque pace. In fact, the percent of voters who made up their minds at the very end in N.H. was unusually large. (Add convincing statistic here!)

Two implications of the Feiler/Skurnik combo: a) Momentum from the previous primary doesn’t last. When the early primary dates were set, the CW held that the Iowa loser would never be able to stop the Iowa “wave” effect in the five days between the two primaries. It was too short a time. In fact, it wasn’t short enough. A three day separation and maybe Obama would have won. As it was, by the time the uninformed voters tuned in on Sunday and Monday, Iowa was ancient history.*** b) Instead, these voters saw clips of Hillary having her emotional tearing up moment. In other words, the Feiler/Skurnik Effect magnifies the significance of any events that occur in the final day or two of the campaign. After yesterday’s election, expect more of these events.

Again, it’s the cry theory. Plausible ? Maybe, and it probably did account for part of the shift toward Hillary, but it seems hard to believe that it’s the only explanation.

Finally, all the media reports about the Obama surge may have had an impact all it’s own:

[I]ndependent voters in N.H. were told by the press that the Democratic race was a done deal–so they voted in the closer, more exciting Republican race. Which made the Republican race not so close and the undid the deal in the Dem race.

Before last night, the running theory was that McCain would suffer from the Obama surge because Obama would soak up some of the independents that might otherwise vote for the Senator from Arizona. But the reverse might have happened. Immediately prior to Tuesday, the final polls showed McCain with a shrinking lead over Romney (reflective, some thought, of the fact that independents were trending toward Obama). In the end, McCain ended up beating Romney by 5%. Arguably, some of the independent vote for Obama went to McCain instead.

In the end, there probably is no one single explanation for what happened and how the polls ended up being so wrong. My own thought is that it is likely a combination of the ballot placement theory, a female backlash arising out of the crying jag, and Obama losing independents to McCain.

  • http://publiusendures.blogspot.com Mark

    I have a theory of my own, which I developed a bit on my site. First- Obama actually didn’t lose any support from the pre-election polls, which kind of eliminates the Bradley Effect theory. The problem Obama had is that the Baby Boomers came out in massive numbers; meanwhile, he got the college kids out, but the numbers show that Gen X-ers were by far the weakest turnout group.

    I suspect that Hillary’s tears gave her Baby Boomer base a bit of extra incentive to get out to the polls, as did the ridiculous debate question about her likeability. There’s also the fact that her base of support was in the big towns, which are much more easily mobilized through get out the vote efforts than the rural areas.

  • http://chngthengteng.blogspot.com/ Tim Chng

    Diebold favors Hillary, hand count for Obama

    Hillary is the only candidate who has more votes on the Diebold machine versus hand counted ballots.




    Using the Comma delimited database: NH municipalities hand count vs use Diebold machines from BlackBoxVoting.org to see if there was a deviation between the results from precincts which used hand counts and those which relied on Diebold machines. The results were astonishing. :

    Updated: 5:05 AM (EST) – Results tallied for 209 out of 236 of the municipalities.

    By Percentage
    Method Hillary Clinton Barack Obama
    Diebold Machines 53.23% 46.77%
    Hand Count 47.47% 52.53%

    By Votes
    Method Hillary Clinton Barack Obama
    Diebold Machines 82860 72807
    Hand Count 18898 20912

    By Number of Municipalities Won
    Method Hillary Clinton Barack Obama
    Diebold Machines 54 33
    Hand Count 43 77

    About 81% of the votes will be “counted” by the Diebold machines.

    This website does a county by county analysis on hand count versus Diebold counted results. One can see that the Diebold count gives hillary more votes and all other candidates less votes.


    This video by blackbox voting shows:

    “One man’s private, sole source company programs 81% of the election in New Hampshire, 100% in Connecticut, almost all of Massachusetts and most of Vermont. Never before seen video of the under-the-radar elections contractor John Silvestro as he tangles with master security expert Harri Hursti.”


  • http://www.ricksincere.com Rick Sincere

    There’s another explanation: Democratic voters find all of their top-tier candidates equally qualified, so they tend to change their minds from hour to hour.

    That means a voter might have told a pollster on Friday that he planned to vote for Obama on Tuesday, but on Sunday, after a conversation with a friend who supported Hillary, he changed his mind. Had that friend supported Edwards, his influence might have nudged the voter toward Edwards; had that friend supported Obama, his influence might have solidified the voter’s decision to cast his ballot for Obama.

    When you are faced with competent, inspiring candidates whose positions on the issues are largely the same — not identical, to be sure, but similar — it is no flaw to change your mind once you enter the voting booth. You think you are voting for a winner regardless of the name you check on the ballot paper.