Monday, January 24, 2011

Advantures in Foolish Early Polling (Yes, It's a Palin Item)

Via an approving tweet from Ezra, Public Policy Polling makes much of the idea that Sarah Palin runs much worse than other Republicans against Barack Obama in Texas.

Look, this kind of polling is just meaningless. Republicans are extremely unlikely to nominate a candidate who is unpopular among Republicans, including Republican-leaning independents. Not just because such a candidate won't win primaries and caucuses -- but because such a candidate that does win will receive highly favorable coverage from the Republican partisan press, and therefore become popular among most Republicans.

It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that a party could nominate a candidate intensely supported by 51% of the party but hated by the other 49% so much that even positive coverage in the partisan press won't matter; it's even theoretically possible that a factional candidate with an even smaller base of intense supporters could win a nomination with even less support if that faction turns out to vote in disproportionate numbers. However, nothing like that has happened in the last thirty years, and there is good reason to believe that it is at the very least highly improbable.

Now, it is of course true that there may be some variation in how popular a nominee might be, but for out-parties the odds are that it won't make a whole lot of difference. Presidential approval matters a whole lot more than how well-liked the challenger is.

As long as I'm at it, the even more obvious reason to ignore a lot of this kind of polling is that while it may be theoretically possible that a party could nominate a candidate who remains unpopular, it certainly isn't possible for a party to nominate a candidate who remains unknown. Even testing Mitt Romney at this point is probably going to undervalue his strength because low-information voters may not recognize his name and therefore be reluctant to say they'll vote for him, and that's even more the case with lesser-known candidates.

Bottom line is that head-to-head general election polling at this point just can't do what PPP wants, which is to tell us which candidates will do better against Obama in fall 2012 -- because we really can't know what the nominee will look like after another year of invisible primary, after Iowa and New Hampshire, after the rest of the primaries and caucuses, after spending months as the nominee pre-convention, and after getting the three day propaganda-fest that is the modern national party convention.


  1. Except, maybe, in the case of Palin.

    I think it is fair to say that 99.8% of everyone who will vote on Election Day in 2012 had heard of Palin by January 24, 2011. And that those who don't fall into favorable or unfavorable on her do so because they are neutral, not because they don't know who she is.

    Of course, this presumes that the fundamentals of the economy and approval don't change in the next 22 months, which seems silly. But all the partisan rallying, media coverage after "news", all the's already happened (nobody besides partisans watches the conventions any more, so Palin's Faux News coverage counts)

  2. What Matt said.

    I agree in general about the irrelevance of such early polling. At this point it is hardly more than name recognition, but it IS name recognition, and surely even people tuned out of politics have heard of Palin. To that extent, even this early polling suggests a low ceiling for her - an awful lot of GOP-leaners who dislike her enough to be pushed more or less toward Obama.

    In earlier posts you've called her a factional candidate, but what is her faction? My impression is that, mostly, the GOP is full of people who (for example) dislike both abortion and taxes, and formerly were more easily fired up over abortion, but now are more easily fired up over taxes. A change of emphasis, but not a factional rivalry.

  3. Rick,

    I think Palin is best thought of at this point as a factional candidate with a personal, not an ideological or issue-related, faction.

    As for how the polling projects...the thing to remember is that a Palin who wins the nomination isn't the Palin we see now. If she wins, she'll poll a lot better -- w/in the GOP or else she has no chance to get the votes, and once she gets the votes others will fall in line.

    I'm not predicting that she will win the nomination, at all, just that if she does, her numbers among Republicans will wind up much better than they are now.

  4. Okay, I see your point. I was not interpreting the poll result in terms of the literal question asked - how, if nominated, she'd run against Obama in the general. Instead I was reading between the lines that a lot of Republican-leaners don't much like her, making her nomination less likely.

    I wonder how much of her support, while not precisely ideological or issue-based, is rooted in cultural politics. Her self-projected image is distinctly rural and blue collar, very different from Newt's image, in spite of their apparently rather similar ideologies. Is that broadly what you mean by 'personal' faction?

  5. The corollary of this post is that most reporters, commentators, media people -- and even some political operatives -- are idiots. (I say this as a former reporter myself.) The world is always brand-new to them; we can see something happen a million times, maybe even every election cycle, and it just won't occur to them that it might happen this time too.

    Thus, I well remember a political discussion I heard on the radio in the December 1991, just after Mario Cuomo had decided not to seek the '92 Democratic nomination. Oh, how horrible, wailed one of the (pro-Dem) commentators. Cuomo was the only national figure the Dems had in the field! The rest were all "unknowns" and "the seven dwarves" -- people no one had ever heard of, like some obscure governor of Arkansas or some such. Obviously, without Cuomo, there was no one left who could hope to challenge an incumbent president! No one!!!

    Another point this post puts me in mind of is the one that Ian Kershaw, the historian, makes in his study of The Hitler Myth and how it was constructed. Basically, the dynamic one sees there is that in the years just before becoming Chancellor, Hitler gradually became more popular. But it wasn't that this happened of its own accord, and therefore he drew more votes; it was the other way around: As the Nazis did better in elections (thanks to their opponents' disarray and so forth), Hitler gained fame and prestige -- and then when he was appointed Chancellor, still with just a plurality rather than outright majority, there was a sudden further jump, because after all he was now a national leader.

    Now, granted, this isn't Weimar Germany, and I wouldn't compare any American politician to Hitler (ahem). But I don't think the dynamic in question is peculiar to Hitler or that era; I think Hitler is just a particularly vivid illustration of how political prestige is acquired, and how the commentators who currently don't understand that Sarah Palin could be significantly more popular, if she won primaries and especially if she were nominated for president by a major party, have the whole process backwards.

  6. Jeff: I'm a young whippersnapper born in the second half of the Reagan administration, but I remember seeing clips of an SNL sketch from November of 1991 called The Race To Avoid Being The Guy Who Loses To Bush.

  7. Jeff's post gives me a question: What's the political science read on the 1992 election? Not that I think that's a particularly mysterious election, but I do think there's a lot of contradictory conventional wisdom out there, and would like to know what, if anything, the data tells us.

  8. UserG, thanks for that link. I remember that sketch too, particularly "Cuomo" insisting he shouldn't be nominated because "I have mob ties." I also remember Fred Barnes' cover story in The New Republic in, I think, March '92, "Why Clinton Can't Win." Good times.

  9. Further to Colby's question, wondering if any political scientist took a cut at estimating Perot's effect on undermining the inevitability of Bush's re-election?

    I'm aware that Perot didn't disproportionately take votes from Bush. But did he take away momentum? Specifically, momentum from the process described in this post: the party has a nominee, they coalesce around him/her, and begin the sell job to independents and marginal members of the other side.

    Did Perot's insurgent status hinder that process for (the ultimate insider) GHW Bush, even if Perot didn't finally siphon off more Bush votes than Clinton votes?

  10. 1992:

    1. Weak economy.

    2. Incumbent party had held the White House for three terms.

    3. The Democrats nominated an anti-Dukakis, a southern centrist governor who didn't mind signing death warrants.

    As I recall, Bush breaking his 'no new taxes' pledge was the commentariat's favorite explanation for his defeat. Political science might give that some weight, but I think less than any of the above three points.

  11. PPP is a democrat polling firm. I find it interesting that they would tweet about it. Itr's almost like they don't want Palin to be the nominee. Makes me wonder.

    Their polling in the Republican gubernatorial race was less than scintillating. Their polling had Perry looking at a definite run-off while all the other polls had Perry around the 50% mark and Perry just got little over 50%.

    I feel comfortable in saying that whichever Republican wins the nomination will win Texas easily. That includes Palin, Romney, or Huckabee or whoever.


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