Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

(covering polls and related articles from the weeks of November 8–14, 2004)

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Where Did Bush’s Gains Come From?
• Do the Exit Polls Indicate Voter Fraud?
• Solving the Paradox of 2004

Where Did Bush’s Gains Come From?

In 2000, Bush lost the popular vote by about half a million votes. In 2004, Bush won the popular vote by close to 3.5 million votes. That’s a shift in Bush’s direction of about 4 million net votes.

Which states did this shift in margin—these 4 million votes—come from?

It is possible to answer this question by comparing Bush’s margin in individual states in 2000 with his margins in those same states in this election. This analysis shows the following:

1. About half of Bush’s gains came from the solid red states—those states that gave Bush a margin of six or more points in 2000. And about half of these gains in the solid red states (a quarter of Bush’s total gains) came in just four specific states: Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.

2. About a third of Bush’s gains came from the solid blue states—those states Gore carried by six points or more in 2000. (In these states, Bush gained by reducing his deficits relative to 2000.) And over three-fifths of Bush’s gains in these solid blue states came from just two states: New York and New Jersey.

3. About a fifth of Bush’s gains came from the “purple states”—those states that were decided in 2000 by less than six points (which includes almost all of the 2004 swing states). And about half of Bush’s gains in this group of states come from just one state: Florida.

A more detailed analysis of Bush’s gains can be conducted by analyzing the county-level results from 2004. They provide some very intriguing insights into the spatial distribution of Bush’s vote gains—insights that challenge the conventional wisdom about where Bush’s vote gains came from and appear to contradict the exit polls’ findings on this issue.

First, the county-level analysis shows that only about a quarter of Bush’s net vote gains from 2000 to 2004 came from the nation’s postindustrial “ideopolises” (see this piece in Blueprint magazine for an explanation of the term) and three-quarters—the vast majority—came from less technologically advanced metro areas and from rural areas.

Second, the county analysis shows that Bush made gains across the board (sometimes less, sometimes more than the conventional wisdom has indicated) when you examine counties sorted into ten categories, going from most urban to most rural. (This analysis uses the rural-urban continuum codes developed by Calvin Beale of the USDA’s Economic Research Service.)

Starting with the most urban counties, those that are central counties of large metro areas (with a population of 1 million or more), Bush improved his vote margin by 2.4 percentage points (that is, he narrowed his margin of loss to about 55 percent to 44 percent). His gains in these areas accounted for about 19 percent of his total net vote gain.

In fringe or exurban counties of these large metro areas, Bush improved his winning margin by 6.7 points (to 62 percent to 38 percent). But because these exurban areas contain far fewer people than the central counties, Bush received only 13 percent of his vote gains from these counties.

More important to Bush’s vote gains were medium-sized metro areas (250,000 to 1 million in population), where he improved his winning margin by 3.5 points (about the national average). But because of the large number of people in medium-sized metro areas, Bush received over a quarter (26 percent) of his net vote gain from these counties.

In small metro areas (less than 250,000 population), Bush improved his margin by 2.4 points and received about 8 percent of his net vote gain.

Turning to non-metro counties, which are typically considered “rural” and which have urban concentrations that range from a high of 50,000 a low of under 2,500, Bush did the best in non-metro counties that are adjacent to a metro area and have an urban population of between 2,500 and 20,000. In these counties, he improved his margin by 6.4 points and received 15 percent of his overall net vote gain.

In the other five types of rural counties (see the rural-urban continuum codes cited above), Bush improved his margin by from 2.2 to 4.2 points and—putting all these other rural counties together—received 18 percent of his net vote gain.

How do these findings match up with the exit poll findings on Bush’s performance in different types of areas? Not very well at all.

Consider this: the exit polls say that Bush’s margin was compressed both in their “rural areas” category (shrinking by three points) and in their other non-metro category, “cities and towns, 10,000 to 50,000 population” (shrinking by an astonishing nineteen points, from a twenty-one-point to a two-point margin).

It’s very hard to square this with the findings cited above on Bush’s gains in all categories of non-metro counties, from the most rural to the least.

Or consider this: the exit polls say that Bush improved his margin by an incredible twenty-four points (going from a 71 percent to 26 percent deficit to 60 percent to 39 percent) in “cities of over 500,000” population and improved by an almost as stunning seventeen points (going from a 57 percent to 40 percent deficit to dead even) in “cities and towns, 50,000 to 500,000 in population.” But a glance at the findings above for the different metro categories fails to find anything even remotely consistent with these shifts.

While the exit polls use different categories (cities of different sizes, suburbs, etc=) that are not county-based, it would take a hell of a story to reconcile these findings by pointing to the differences between county-based and non-county-based categories.

So put a big question mark by those exit poll spatial findings. They just don’t square with analysis of the actual votes that were cast and where Bush made his gains.

Much more of this county-based analysis to come! I’m just getting started and will shortly be taking a look at some of the more interesting states in the 2004 election.

Do the Exit Polls Indicate Voter Fraud?

Edison Media Research/Mitofsky International exit poll of 13,360 voters for National

Election Pool, released November 2, 2004 (conducted November 2, 2004)

There are two lines of analysis that are typically used to justify the claim that the 2004 election result was somehow stolen by the GOP. The first is various bits and pieces of “evidence”—the precincts in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, with more votes than registered voters; the counties in Florida (Baker, Holmes) with huge Bush margins but big Democratic registration advantages, and so on—that supposedly indicate vote tampering. I find this evidence profoundly unconvincing and think Farhad Manjoo and others have it basically right: there’s not a lot of there there. Vote tampering does not appear to have happened on the scale necessary to affect this election.

The second line of analysis invokes the now-infamous early releases of the National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll data, which showed Kerry with a three-point national lead, solidly ahead in Ohio and also leading in Iowa, Nevada, and New Mexico. The reasoning, laid out most clearly in a paper, “The Unexplained Exit Poll Discrepancy,” by Steven Freeman of the University of Pennsylvania, is that exit polls are very accurate surveys and highly unlikely to produce the results referred to above by chance if the real world results truly were +3 Bush, and so on. Therefore, the reasoning goes, our measurement of the real world (the actual vote counts) must be wrong and the original exit poll results right. Conclusion: there’s something very funny going on with this election.

But there is a huge problem with this line of reasoning. The exit polls have always drawn samples that are off the real world results and have always had to be corrected (weighted) to eliminate bias, reflect new turnout patterns, and, in the end, just flat-out conform to the election results. This year is no different (though it is possible that the magnitude of these corrections has been greater than normal).

Here is my understanding of how the exit poll samples are weighted, based on what I have been able to ferret out so far. (No doubt, I’m not getting it entirely right, but it’s damnably difficult to track down good information about this—exit pollsters have never made much effort to publicly explain and document their methods.)

1. Samples are weighted to correct for oversampling of precincts (for example, exit polls have historically selected minority precincts in some states at higher rates than other precincts) and for nonresponse bias (exit poll interviewers try to keep track of refusers by sex, race, and age).

2. Samples are weighted to correct for changing turnout patterns in the current election, since the sample design is based on past turnout behavior.

3. Samples are, in end, simply weighted to correspond to the actual election results. This is done by first weighting exit poll results in sample precincts to the true precinct results, as they are known, and then weighting the overall sample to the overall election result, once it is known.

At what point are these various weighting procedures performed? That’s difficult to say because of the lack of public documentation of exit pollsters’ methods. But it appears to be the case that weighting of flavors one and two takes place at least partially during the day (and continuously through the day), while the third flavor naturally has to wait until actual election results start to become available.

So where were we in this extremely complicated weighting process when those first +3 Kerry exit polls hit the CNN website? Who knows? (And exit pollsters have not exactly clarified the issue since.)

But it’s certainly clear that those data had not yet been weighted (or at least very much) to reflect the actual election outcome (again, part of standard exit poll procedure, not anything peculiar to this year). But how much had they been weighted to reflect the other factors (1 and 2) mentioned above?

Possibly much of this weighting had already been done. If so, then the rest of the sample correction—that took their data from +3 Kerry to +3 Bush—was done by good old-fashioned weighting to the election outcome. Or perhaps it was some combination of additional weighting for factors 1 and 2 plus weighting to the election outcome.

Who knows? Again, exit pollsters don’t seem to be particularly eager to share this information. Nor do they seem particularly eager to clarify how common it has historically been for exit poll samples at that time on Election Day to be that far off from the actual election result.

The issue of historical comparisons is an important one. Part of what has led to the brouhaha over this year’s exit poll is people’s lack of knowledge about how exit polls have been conducted in the past.

Consider this. The unweighted—completely unweighted—data from the last four presidential elections before this year are as follows:

1988: Dukakis, 50.3; Bush, 49.7

1992: Clinton, 46; Bush, 33.2

1996: Clinton, 52.2; Dole, 37.5

2000: Gore, 48.5; Bush, 46.2

President Dukakis? Obviously, the unweighted data have always been highly problematic and—interestingly—have always shown a strong Democratic bias. Now these unweighted data from past years do not, admittedly, correspond to where we were in the weighting process on election night this year when the +3 Kerry poll hit the Internet—those data had presumably already been weighted to some extent to correct for factors 1 and 2—but it is still food for thought.

It’s entirely possible that exit poll samples this year, controlling for similar points in the weighting process, were off more than in past years. I can’t say at this point and I urge the NEP to make the appropriate historical comparisons available to answer the question. But, even if so, this is hardly evidence of skullduggery in the real world; much more likely it reflects the enormous—and perhaps increasing—difficulties of conducting surveys of this complexity in a rapidly changing country.

Of course, additional inaccuracy in the exit poll samples this year (if true) is not a development completely devoid of implications. It could mean that some of the specific results from the survey are less reliable than in the past. (Personally, I have my doubts about some of the numbers, like those for urban/suburban/rural [see above] and for Hispanics.) But that’s a far cry from assuming an election has been somehow stolen or tainted.

Solving the Paradox of 2004

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of 2,000 voters for Democracy Corps/Institute for America’s Future, released November 5, 2004 (conducted November 2–3, 2004)

Or, as the subtitle of Democracy Corps’ new memo on its post-election poll puts it, “Why America Wanted Change but Voted for Continuity.”

The memo gives as good an account of this paradoxical result as we have so far. Here are some relevant excerpts, but I urge you to read the memo in full and consult the extensive supporting material:

“…The president and his campaign acted boldly to create an election dynamic that enabled Bush to escape the consequences of his incumbency and the public’s desire for change. That included a contrast on character and leadership, though that would not have saved the president. More important was the attack on Kerry on abortion and gay marriage and the extreme cultural polarization of the country. That proved effective at the end because the president was able to keep the election centered on safety (the terrorist threat) and values, rather than on Iraq and the stagnant economy. Bush asked people to vote their beliefs and feelings, rather than to judge his performance or ideas for the future.

That is why George Bush’s vote on Election Day exceeded his pre-election job approval and exceeded his final poll numbers.

…John Kerry and his campaign were in a position to win the presidency, falling short at the end. While Kerry crossed the threshold on security, he was weighed down by doubts about his convictions and authenticity and cultural baggage that left him short with rural, many blue collar, non-college educated and union voters, and Hispanics. In the end, Kerry was unable to make the economy a central point of choice and change or break through with his vision for creating better jobs with more affordable health care. When that became apparent in the last week, large sections of downscale America shifted, opting to vote their values, rather than their economic worries. That produced a cultural surge at the end, an intensified polarization that took down many Democrats in rural states and the South, that diminished their blue collar support generally and that allowed George Bush to get a national majority from red America.

…A sizeable majority felt the country was headed in the wrong direction; their top issues remained the economy and jobs and Iraq, along with the war on terrorism. Indeed, many more voters said they wanted an election about the economy and health care, rather than about how to keep America safe (52 to 41 percent).

…The answer [to the question of why a change electorate re-elected the incumbent] lies in the success of the Bush campaign in defining John Kerry and in keeping the campaign centered on safety and values to the end. It also lies in the inability of the Democrats to make the economy and their vision for the country compelling for the electorate, particularly those most hurt by current changes. Together, that gave us the cultural polarization of the 2004 election.

…[T]he very late deciders either broke evenly or more for Kerry, as one would expect in an incumbent election. But…that was swamped by the shift of downscale voters in the final week and a half, as values trumped the undeveloped economic concerns. In that period, the vote broke for Bush by 55 to 44 percent.

…Many of these downscale voters were concerned about economic problems as well as moral decline. They mostly hung back from Bush, many providing him with less support than in 2000, until the final 10 days of the election. This pattern was most evident for the following groups:

• Among white rural voters – key to what happened in so many battleground states and in so many U.S. Senate races – Bush’s vote was at only 57 percent, 6 points below where Bush stood in 2000. But about 10 days out, they broke, ultimately giving Bush what he achieved four years earlier.

• Among white older non-college educated women, Bush’s vote had fallen to 45 percent, 5 points below his 2000 level, though the vote started to break 10 days out and moved to Bush in the final weekend, ultimately reaching 58 percent.

• The white older non-college-educated men also lagged for Bush. In the last week, Bush’s vote stood at 52 percent, 6 points below the 2000 level, but they broke for Bush on Election Day.

• White seniors were lagging for Bush right to the end, with Bush 4 points below the 2000 level. But with few material issues being debated in 2004 – no “lock box” – seniors voted their moral concerns, giving Bush a stunning 59 percent. (In The Two Americas, Greenberg highlighted how seniors have always given Republicans about 60 percent of their votes before seniors issues were contested, starting in 1992.)

…In this final phase, unfortunately, the economic issues slipped away for the Democrats. After the debates, voters preferred Kerry over Bush on the economy by up to 7 points, but in the final week that slipped to just 2 points. More importantly, the issue focus moved away from the economy and to Iraq. Both during the debates and on Election Day, a third of the voters said terrorism was their top voting issue. Iraq grew in importance through the final weeks – up from 19 to 26 percent – but at the expense of the economy and jobs, which dropped from 35 to 28 percent. This election moved away from the Democrats’ key issues and choice in the final phase of voter decision-making.

When the economy slipped away as an issue in this final phase, Bush was in a strong position to consolidate these voters on their worries about terrorist and safety and their worries about John Kerry on the cultural issues and his values. That led to the late shift of white rural, blue collar, and senior voters to Bush. That gave Bush his narrow national majority.”

So there you have it: a very plausible description of how Bush managed to win this election—a description that adds a great deal of important detail to the generally superficial newspaper accounts of Bush’s victory. Lacking, however, is much of an explanation for why this cultural surge at the end of the campaign took place and what, if anything, Democrats could have done to forestall it.

That’s a tough one—and one Democrats are obviously going to have to think hard about.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.

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Ruy Teixeira

Former Senior Fellow