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Monday, April 30, 2012

Tracking the Presidential Race

Check out our recent Election Matters program in which I talked with Temple University Professor Chris Wlezien (co-author with Robert Erikson of Columbia University of the forthcoming book The Timeline of Presidential Campaigns) about forecasting the presidential election. Their research shows that the ballot position of the candidates at this point is not highly predictive of the outcome of the election. Presidential job approval is somewhat more predictive at this point. The predictive ability of the trial heat ballot increases as the election gets closer.

Of course, the reason to measure the trial heat right now is not just to predict the outcome next Nov. 6. We believe that tracking voter sentiments (i.e., voters' responses when asked for whom they would vote if  (“...the presidential election were held today”) helps us understand where the two campaigns are at this point, and what’s happening as they progress. Both Obama and Romney are actively out there attempting to establish positioning, to criticize their opponents, and to gain early momentum. Some observers argue that fixing the images of the candidates in the minds of voters at this point is, in fact, highly important because these initial impressions can take hold and stay in place through next fall. Hence, it’s useful and interesting -- in our opinion here at Gallup -- to monitor how all of that is going.

At this point I would say our tracking, initiated on April 11, shows a quite close race. In fact, if we put together all of the 8,059 interviews we conducted April 11-29, we find that Obama has 46% of the vote of registered voters, and Romney has 46%. In other words, a close race. But there have been shifts over that time period. Obama was ahead in the first several nights of interviewing after April 11, but then Romney moved ahead. Obama regained the lead in our Gallup Daily tracking through last week, but now Romney is moving back out ahead again.

The nightly numbers that form the basis for the tracking averages we report are fairly consistent. Each night’s tracking is a self-contained sample (although the numbers called can be ones left over from previous day's interviewing attempts). Romney was ahead for five out of six of our independent nightly samples from April 14 though April 18, Obama was ahead for seven straight independent nights of interviewing from April 19 through April 26, and now Romney has been ahead for three straight nights from April 27 through April 29. Keep in mind that these are all separate samples. So the conclusion is that the population of registered voters out there across the country has shifted at least marginally several times over the course of the 18 nights of interviewing we have conducted so far.

In terms of our rolling average, one way to look at it is to say that Obama’s share of the ballot has ranged between 43% and 50% over the last 18 days, while Romney’s has ranged between 42% and 48%. That’s a six- and a seven-percentage-point range. Obama’s approval in that rolling average has ranged between 45% and 50% over that time period. Notice that Obama job approval has not varied as much, operating since April 11 in a tighter range, and that is based on a three-day aggregate with a lower sample size. At least at this point, Obama's job approval rating appears to be slightly more stable than his share of the ballot among registered voters.

The conclusion is that the presidential race appears tight, but with some fluidity. Everything we have learned in tracking suggests that this fluidity is fairly normal. Although many voters at the ends of the political spectrum are rigidly fixed in their vote choice, there is always movement in the middle. Not a lot of movement, of course, from a big picture perspective. But there is movement. The reason we track, of course, is to monitor that movement. 

There are differing views on the value of tracking an election race (or tracking the Dow Jones or any other commodity) on a daily basis. The wider the time span over which you track something, the less the volatility and change. So one's decision on tracking depends on one’s perspective on the value of information. Reasonable people disagree on this. Some people think that all that matters is the longer-term, slow change in things like presidential job approval and an election ballot. They would be content to have thirty-day rolling averages that show very slow change. Others (including us here at Gallup) think that it's also valuable to track shorter-term movements in these indexes for the reasons I have given above. (Of course, any consumer of our data can average the reported results into as long a time period as they want to).

Our objective is to find the sweet spot between picking up too much variation and not picking up enough variation. Right now we are using a five-day rolling average, based on around 2,200 interviews with registered voters for each five day period. We have used a three-day rolling average in election tracking in the past and currently still use a three-day rolling average for presidential job approval. We will soon begin reporting candidate choice within detailed voter segments, most likely using longer-term three-week rolling averages, and we may extend our daily election tracking average to a weekly time period at that point.

We are entering a period of the election now when there are fewer specific milestones. There is Romney’s pending vice presidential decision and then the conventions in late August and early September. But with the nominees now fixed -- unless there is a major third party entrant -- some of the excitement and attention paid to the race may drop. Still, all of our experience going back to tracking the 1992 presidential race, suggests there will be change in ballot positioning of the candidates as we go.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Importance of Turnout

Presidential campaigns face two challenges in the effort to get their candidate elected. First, convincing voters to vote for the campaign’s candidate instead of the opposing candidate. Second, getting those voters already predisposed to voting for the campaign’s candidate to turn out and vote on Election Day.

This latter effort becomes more and more important in a highly polarized political environment in which large swaths of voters are pretty much locked into their vote choice. Much of the effort this year within both Obama's and Romney's campaign teams will be focused on turnout.

Some basic structural patterns of voter turnout are clear from previous Gallup research, exit polls, and research done by the U.S. Census Bureau. Voters who are older, married, have higher education, have higher incomes, and own their homes are significantly more likely to vote than those who are in the opposite categories. The relationships between age and education and voting are particularly striking. Older Americans and well-educated Americans are much more likely to vote than their younger and less well-educated counterparts.

We will later in this election year isolate “likely voters” based on a complex pattern of questions asked of each voter. At this point, however, we have included in our election tracking a single question that asks each voter how likely they think they are to vote next November. It’s a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 representing the response “I will definitely vote.” Because about 78% of voters at this point say they will definitely vote, it’s useful just to look at that figure -- the “definitely will vote” percentage -- as a rough estimate of turnout potential at this point. The demographics of turnout are pretty well established, as I've noted. The partisan and ideological correlates of turnout are also interesting.

For example, everyone talks about the importance of the “independent” vote, but one thing is clear from our analysis of this "definitely will vote" question: independents are less attached to the political system not only in the sense that they don’t immediately claim a partisan label when asked, but also in the sense that they are not as likely to vote.

Here we see that while 80% or more of Democrats and Republicans claim they will definitely vote, only about two-thirds of independents agree. In short, while independent voters are valuable because they are not as anchored in their vote choice as are core Republicans and Democrats, they are less valuable because they are less likely to vote. 

In the course of our interviews, we ask independents if they “lean” toward one party or the other, and a good percentage say they do. That allows us to split the sample into "core" Republicans and "core" Democrats (those who immediately claim identification with one of these two parties), “leaned” Republicans and Democrats (independents who lean to one party or the other), and finally, “pure independents” -- those who, even when prodded, say they don’t lean to either party.

We see here a classic "U" or bowl shape. The highest self-projected turnout comes among the two groups at the ends -- the core Republicans (who have the highest self-reported turnout of all) and the core Democrats. Self-projected turnout among independents who “lean” is slightly lower than turnout among those in each party who are core. The pure independents -- those who are independents but who do not lean -- have the lowest self-reported turnout of all.

Finally, we get the same overall U-shaped pattern when we cross ideology by partisanship to create six categories running from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats.

The two "purest" groups -- conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats -- are the ones with the highest propensity to turn out, while those who are more moderate ideologically are less likely to turn out. And, as we have seen, those who are pure independents are the least likely to turn out.

The higher level of interest in voting among those who are more core partisans is not shocking. People who most readily adopt a partisan identity, and who overlay that with one of the more core ideological positions (conservative and liberal) obviously care more about politics. Indifference to party or ideological labels implies indifference to the political process. This is the secret of partisan radio talk shows, and of Fox News and, to a lesser degree, MSNBC, on cable. These programs realize that the highest interest, passion, and emotion sit with those who have strong partisan and ideological identities -- and that these listeners and viewers will therefore be reliable and bring in higher ratings and higher revenues.

For a political campaign, focusing on groups at the end of the U-shaped curves in the graphs above presents what is arguably a more manageable challenge than trying to change people's minds. The strong partisans have their minds in place; it's just up to the campaigns to continue to stoke their political passions up to Election Day in order to make sure they show up at the voting booth.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Whites and Non-Whites in Gallup’s Registered Voter Sample

Guest post by Gallup Senior Editor Lydia Saad

Gallup’s inaugural general election trial heat -- showing Romney leading Obama by two percentage points -- sparked several observers to review the internals for evidence about what was behind the numbers. This was driven by the fact that a number of polls released around the same time showed the race anywhere from a nine-point lead for Obama (CNN), to a tie (CBS), to a two-point lead for Romney (Gallup, Fox News).

Any number of factors could cause polls by different firms to produce different results, including, but not limited to:  the dates the surveys were conducted, the wording and placement of the ballot question within the questionnaires, the sampling and calling procedures used to obtain completed interviews (including reliance on cell phones), the “house effects” of the interviewing centers used to conduct the survey, and the weighting procedures used to ensure that the final samples match known parameters in the population.  One cannot fairly evaluate the accuracy of any one poll against another without reviewing all of these variables. 

However, some observers have latched onto the racial composition of Gallup’s tracking poll as a basis for evaluating the results. Here is what National Review’s Ronald Brownstein had to say about this based on a comparison of Gallup’s April 11-15 sample to past Election Day exit polls:

"But the Gallup track, which is conducted among registered voters, has a sample that looks much more like the electorate in 2010 than the voting population that is likely to turn out in 2012: only 22 percent of the Gallup survey was non-white, according to figures the organization provided to Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. That was close to the non-white share of the vote in 2010 (23 percent), but in 2008, minorities comprised 26 percent of all voters, according to exit polls; the Obama campaign, and other analysts, project the minority share of the vote will increase to 28 percent in 2012. In its survey, Pew, for instance, puts the non-white share at 25 percent."

The problem with this analysis is that the racial composition of Gallup’s election samples have typically differed from Election Day exit polling, even in years when our presidential election forecast was spot on. Part of this stems from the different approaches used by Gallup and the network exit poll survey for measuring race. Gallup uses a multi-question approach to assess the race of the respondent, similar to Census Bureau protocols -- so precise comparability shouldn’t be expected.  But as shown in the table below, the proportion of whites has been going down in both exit polling and Gallup’s final pre-election polls, and the 76% we show today among registered voters is lower than the 78% we had in our final 2008 likely voter sample.

Additionally, Gallup’s final pre-election samples typically have a slightly higher proportion of whites than does the exit poll. So in 2004, for instance, 77% of exit poll respondents were categorized non-Hispanic white. That compares with 82% of likely voters in Gallup’s final pre-election survey in 2004. There was a similar gap in 2008: 74% were categorized non-Hispanic white in exit polling vs. 78% in Gallup’s final likely voter sample.  However, just because Gallup’s samples were more heavily white in both years, doesn’t mean the final results were skewed to Republicans. In fact, it’s the opposite. In 2004, Gallup’s final poll showed John Kerry doing slightly better than he actually did, and in 2008, Gallup’s predicted share of the vote for Barack Obama was two points higher than he received. 

Regardless, the point is that to assess the trend in the racial composition of Gallup’s current trial heat samples, they need to be compared to Gallup election poll trends, not to the exit polls (which, it should be noted, are themselves polls with their own complex issues). On that basis, the 76% of registered voters in Gallup’s recent tracking poll can be compared with the 78% of likely voters in our final 2008 pre-election poll, and so far it looks like the white proportion of the electorate may be trending further down in 2012. However, we can’t make any firm conclusions about the trend since we aren’t yet screening for likely voters.  How that looks will partly depend on relative turnout among whites and blacks, and it remains to be seen whether black turnout will be as high in 2012 as it was in 2008.

This year Gallup’s general election trial heats are being reported in near real time based on five-day rolling averages using large samples. The ballot question is the same Gallup has used in presidential elections, and it is the second question asked in the survey, after the registered voter question. Gallup conducts interviews via landline and cell phone, includes Spanish-language interviewing, and weights its samples to the latest census targets (2011 Current Population Survey) for gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, number of adults in the household, and phone status. Further, Gallup’s unparalleled sample sizes -- reporting over 2,200 registered voters -- across five days of interviewing provides strong statistical reliability and protection from random nightly sample variation.

While the results of various recent national polls do vary, as is normal, most are within expected range of each other when taking into account margins of sampling error around each. Gallup’s tracking at this point indicates that the race is statistically even, with Romney owning a slight advantage, similar to what was shown by the Fox News and New York Times/CBS polls. Two others -- Quinnipiac and Reuters/Ipsos -- show Obama with a slight lead while NBC/Wall Street Journal and CNN give Obama larger leads.

As Brownstein noted, the larger takeaway from these early looks at the general election is that the race appears to be close. That’s the same conclusion one might draw from a variety of other polling and real-world indicators, including Obama’s sub-50% approval rating, depressed economic confidence and U.S. satisfaction, and sluggish improvement in the U.S. unemployment rate. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gallup’s National Election Tracking

Gallup Daily tracking of the general presidential election began April 11, and our first five-day rolling average result, reported Monday, showed Romney leading by two points, 47% to 45%, among more than 2,200 registered voters. However, the trend has been moving in Romney’s direction.

Within the first five nights of tracking, from April 11-15, Obama led by a small margin on the first two nights. Romney did better over the weekend, ultimately shifting the five-day average around to where he was slightly ahead. Romney’s advantage expanded further on Monday night, resulting in a 48% vs. 43% advantage for him in Gallup Daily tracking from April 12-16. We will see this morning whether last night’s interviewing shows Romney’s momentum continuing to build, leveling off, or reversing. Any of these is possible given the fast moving nature of today’s political environment. Regardless, the daily trends within our reported five-day averages show a definite move toward Romney since the weekend. The interesting point is why that occurred and what it indicates, if anything, for the campaign ahead. 

Gallup invests in state-of-the-art methodological techniques in its sampling and interviewing. One decision we made this year was to lengthen our reporting period to five-day rolling averages. Each day we drop off the oldest interviewing and add in the newest day of interviewing. Plus, we ask the registered voter question of a full random half sample a night, N=500, yielding about 440 registered voters each night, for a combined random sample of around 2,200 each reporting period. This gives us a very large sample size and stable estimates. The tracking is thus a little less responsive to short-term changes in the political environment, but makes the estimates more consistent. Our intention is to focus on broader changes in voter sentiments.

As you would expect from Gallup, we are continually refining our sampling and interviewing process to stay at the cutting edge of survey methodology. We, for example, were the first major poll in the U.S. to institute the inclusion of cell phones in January 2008, and now at least 40% of each of our samples are conducted on cell phones. We interview in Spanish language to a subset of respondents who want to be interviewed in that language. We make multiple calls on numbers in the sample. We now have our presidential ballot question at the front of the survey, in order to replicate the experience voters have in the voting booth, and in order to avoid any context effects. Other polls still ask the presidential ballot after other sets of questions, which may influence or bias it. All of the Gallup tracking interviews are conducted by Gallup’s own trained interviewers in our own interviewing facilities around the country.

These techniques have fared well in the past. In 2008, Gallup’s final estimates were within two percentage points of the actual vote share obtained by Barack Obama and John McCain. Similarly, in 2004, our final estimate was within one to two points of the final vote share for John Kerry and George W. Bush. In both instances, our final allocated estimates were slightly higher for the Democratic candidates involved than for the Republican candidates.

We are also as transparent about what we do -- under the assumption that we all benefit when interested parties are able to examine and analyze our data in detail and in different ways. We are happy to share the internals of our data with interested journalists, analysts, and others who want to find out more about what the data are showing. Since our first tracking report on Monday, we have sent internals and tabs to a number of journalists -- and also to the Obama re-election campaign’s pollster at his request (more on this below). Starting in a couple of weeks, we will be posting on our website each week detailed breakdowns of the vote within a wide range of subgroups, based on rolling averages of combined samples of over 6,000 registered voters.

This is my sixth presidential election cycle here at Gallup, and if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that politics has evolved into a world in which the attempt to control the message is everything -- at all costs.

Now that we have begun tracking the presidential race on a nightly basis, the political reactions come out -- as I would expect based on history. In the current situation, we see Tuesday’s “tweet” by Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod to the effect that Gallup’s methodology is somehow flawed because it has shown a close race with Romney slightly ahead.

Criticizing a poll's “methodology” is a useful technique for a political campaign because it diverts attention from the message. Our Obama job approval in the first five nights (April 11-15) of tracking interviewing was 47%, consistent with other national surveys around the same time. If there were methodological problems with Gallup’s polling, they would logically be reflected in presidential job approval as well as the ballot.

We did not see tweets about Gallup when The New York Times' poll in early March showed Obama job approval dropping suddenly to 41%, while our tracking survey (the same one we are using now) showed Obama’s approval staying high and constant in the upper 40% range during the same time period. Nor did we see a tweet when we reported that the majority of Americans support the so-called Buffett Rule, which Obama has heavily pushed for.  On the other hand, we presumably should expect to see a tweet this morning criticizing the new New York Times/CBS News poll showing Obama and Romney tied at 46% each, essentially what we reported on Monday. And so on. The tweets come out when the results of a poll are counter to what is in the best interest of a campaign narrative. That’s a natural outgrowth of the intense political environment in which we operate today.

We are great believers in “collective wisdom.” That’s that we do. So if we can learn from others’ input, we welcome it. We thus welcome any campaign’s pollsters to come over to Gallup and to be briefed on our Gallup methods and to ask any questions they might have. I would hope that all pollsters, including those who work for campaigns, end up seeing that our focus is on providing the highest quality, top-drawer methodological polling. We are always happy to explain our methods to anyone.

As noted, a number of people have requested more information about our poll, and we supply that to everyone who requests it. It’s certainly possible that, with many minds pouring over our data, even our own analysts may learn something.

Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal and Mark Blumenthal of Huffington Post, for example, both wrote insightful pieces looking at the Gallup data and other polls that have come out recently.
Some discussion centers on the proportion of certain demographic groups in the sample -- which are always going to vary at least marginally across polls. Mark Blumenthal points out that all of the recent polls show the same high percentage of the vote among those who identify themselves as Republicans and Democrats going for their candidate -- basically about 90% on both sides. (This is a key because it shows that despite the rigors of the Republican nomination campaign, it appears that Republicans are having no problem indicating that they will end up voting for Romney -- and that most Democrats will have no problem indicating that they will end up voting for Obama). Mark ends by pointing out "While tracking polls will continue to produce ups and downs, the underlying structure of the race appears to be in place. The Obama-Romney contest is close and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future."

Ron Brownstein looked at the data in a different way, focusing on race, gender, and class lines. One of his focus points is the percentage of the sample that is “non-white.” That’s significant, as Ron notes, given that in today’s political environment, race is a huge cleaving variable. The significant majority of whites vote for the Republican candidate and the significant majority of non-whites vote for the Democratic candidate. Ron has some speculation about what the final voting percentage of non-whites might be this November. But, of course, no one knows that at this point. We certainly don’t weight our sample to projected turnout proportions, in the sense of making assumptions about what the electorate will look like on Nov. 6. What the electorate will look like, of course, depends on what transpires between now and then. And what it looks like even then is dependent on what another poll -- the exit poll -- estimates. There are no official election records of the race, age, gender, etc., of voters as they vote.

The 2008 election may well have been a high-water mark for the percentage of non-white voters in the electorate, given the presence on the ballot of the first major party African-American candidate in history. It’s not clear that the percentage of non-whites this Fall will grow larger than 2008. That’s still an unknown.

Gallup has refined its race/ethnicity question in great detail in recent years, and we basically follow the U.S. Census Bureau procedures. Additionally, and this is a key, we weight each of our samples to the census parameters on race. That, in turn, means that the registered voters we use are the result of an overall weighted national adult sample. The race composition in the national adult pool reflects the base census figures.

I have no doubt that there will be other issues that arise as the election season plows ahead. Gallup’s purpose in investing in tracking and making it widely available on is to provide interested parties a solid, scientific basis for understanding the dynamics of this important election. In general, we welcome any and all input and -- as I’ve noted -- believe that we all benefit from a shared focus on our data.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Obama's Demographic Strengths: Non-White, Non-Religious, Non-Married, and Young Voters

Sitting here looking at the data from our first five days of Gallup Daily tracking of the general election battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, I'm struck by the powerful relationship of four demographic variables to a person’s vote choice in today’s political environment. Our nation is, of course, sharply divided by region, party identification, and ideology; but underneath it all, a person’s politics are sharply divided by that person’s race, that person’s marital status, that person’s religiosity, and that person’s age.  These are not new findings, but the current data reinforce the powerful way in which demographics create political destiny.

Remember that in our first five-day tracking sample, involving interviewing conducted April 11-15, Romney had 47% of the overall vote of registered voters, Obama 45%. Using Obama as the base, let’s call that a -2 Obama advantage. (Note: We are going to provide in-depth analysis of the general election across subgroups using the very large sample sizes that accrue when we aggregate several weeks of our tracking together on a rolling basis. The examples I'm outlining here are based only on the first five days of interviewing with slightly over 2,200 interviews).

Obama’s advantage over Romney among blacks is an extraordinary +89 (based on 93% of blacks who say they would vote for Obama, and the 4% vote who would vote for Romney). Obama’s margin is +46 among Hispanics. When we put all “non-whites” together, we have Obama with a +60 advantage.  (Again, these gaps are based on the smaller sample sizes in our first five days of interviewing, but it's obvious that Obama is doing well among non-whites, regardless of the precise numbers involved).

Of course, that leaves whites, where Obama’s advantage is -20 (based on 35% of non-Hispanic whites who say they would vote for Obama, and 55% who would vote for Romney). Whites are the majority of the U.S. population, of course. Their lack of support for Obama is counterbalanced by the very high support Obama gets among non-whites.

Then there is age. In these first five days of interviewing, 18- to 29-year-olds are +17 for Obama, a clear area of strength. Those aged 30-49 years are +1 for Romney, a margin that climbs to +6 among those aged 50-64 years, and +11 among those 65 years or older. So, as was the case for race, Obama’s great strength in a smaller segment -- in this case young people -- counterbalances his lack of strength among the majority.

Now let’s move on to marriage -- a very powerful predictor of vote intention. Among married Americans, Obama’s margin is -18. Among non-married Americans -- a group that includes single/never married, divorced, separated, living with domestic partner, and widows -- Obama’s margin is +19. That’s a huge pivot point -- a swing on the gap of 37 points (from -18 among married Americans to +19 among non-married Americans).

Marriage is, in fact, so important that it overwhelms the famous gender gap wherein women skew toward Obama and men toward Romney. Non-married women have a +26 Obama vote tilt. Non-married men have a +9 Obama vote skew. This reinforces the basic finding that non-married Americans are pro-Obama, and also that women are more pro-Obama than men.

Married women, on the other hand, are -15 Obama. Marital status trumps gender, in other words. Even though women, in general, are disproportionately Obama supporters, if they are married, they end up being significantly more likely to vote for Romney than for Obama. And, of course, putting both marital status and gender together produces the least Obama-supportive group of all, with married men coming in with a -22.

Finally, there is religion. There is no doubt that religiousness is a major correlate of political status in America today (and has been since at least the 1980s). Basically, there is an R & R rule in American politics: religious equals Republican. That’s certainly the case in voter intentions. Among Americans who attend church weekly, Obama’s position is -21. Among those who attend nearly every week or monthly, it’s -5. Among those who seldom or never attend religious services, it’s a +11.

Obama is, by all accounts, a personally religious man, but his political appeal skews strongly toward Americans who are not religious.

These data on religion and Republicanism include black Americans, who are anomalous in that they are both very religious and very Democratic. Looking only at non-Hispanic whites, we find that Obama’s position goes from an extraordinary -46 among weekly white church attenders to -25 among almost-weekly/monthly white church attenders to -2 among whites who seldom or never attend church. So the gap swing among all Americans from weekly church attenders to seldom/never church attenders is 32 points. The gap swing among white Americans from weekly church attenders to seldom/never church attenders is a significantly larger 44 points.

From a demographic standpoint, therefore, we see that Obama's political strength is among Americans who are not white, who are not married, who are not religious, and who are young.

Just to underscore the power of these demographic variables, I put together two groups of voters (based on our April 11-15 five-day rolling average):
  • Married, weekly-church-attending, whites: 17% for Obama, 73% for Romney
  • Non-married, seldom/never-church-attending, non-whites: 86% for Obama, 8% for Romney

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Obama, Swing States, and Women

The key takeaway from our March Gallup/USA Today update of voters' attitudes in 12 key swing states:  Barack Obama is better positioned against Mitt Romney now than he has been -- at least, for the moment.

Our first four polls in the swing states between October of last year and February of this year showed Obama losing to Romney by between one and five percentage points. Now, in the March poll, Obama has moved ahead of Romney by nine points among registered voters. Clearly, at least as of March 20-26, voters in the 12 swing states were significantly more positive about Obama and more negative about Romney than they have been. 

Let's review here. Obama was at a two-point deficit to Romney in the swing states in February (let’s call that a -2) and was at a nine-point advantage in March (+9). That’s a swing across an 11-point gap between the two polls. (Obama gained five points between the two polls, from 46% to 51%, while Romney lost six points, dropping from 48% to 42%).

The natural inclination at this point is to look for an explanation for this shift.  We know that Romney was in the middle of a bruising GOP nomination battle in March, which could have hurt him -- but of course he was in the middle of a bruising GOP nomination battle in February, when he did much better against Obama in the swing states.

So we look further. And one often fertile area for our analysis when we see these types of changes from poll to poll is changes within subgroups. 

Now, if everything else is equal, Obama’s gap gain would be 11 points in every subgroup of the population. That is, in this "everything equal" scenario, Obama would have gained 11 points among young people, 11 points among old people, 11 points among blacks, 11 points among non-blacks, 11 points in each region of the country, 11 points among the well-educated, 11 points among the less educated, and so on. If that were the case, we wouldn't have much additional information to help fuel our desire to find out more about Obama's gains from February to March.

But that is not the case, as it rarely is. With these types of trends, it almost always turns out that the overall change is reflected proportionately more in some subgroups and proportionately less in other subgroups.

And that’s certainly what happened as far as trends by gender were concerned between February and March. In February, Obama was behind Romney by seven points among men (-7) and leading among women by four points (+4). That's an 11-point gender gap.  Putting these two together led to Obama’s overall -2 position for Obama vis-a-vis Romney in the swing states in February.

In March, the Obama’s net among men was -1, an improvement of six points (from a -7 to a -1). In March the Obama net among women was +18, an improvement of 14 points (from +4 to +18).  Thus, in March, the gender gap increased to 19 points (from 11 points in February).  So clearly, Obama’s overall more positive standing in the trial heat poll in March was due to a bigger gain among women than his gain among men.

That leads one to assume that Obama's gains in March were due to some event, environmental change, or other occurrence that affected women more than it affected men.

To be sure, Obama has always does better among women than among men in these trial heats. That’s the fabled gender gap built on the fact that women are more Democratic in today’s American society than are men. The gender difference in March’s Swing States poll -- the +18 among women compared to the -1 among men -- is, however,  larger than what we saw in February.

But, when we look back across our five swing state polls, we see that the 19 point gender gap in March (again, based on the difference in the Obama-Romney margin between men and women) is not totally unusual. The accompanying chart shows that although the gender gap was 11 and 12 points in our February and January Swing States polls, respectively, it was 16 and 22 in the previous two polls last fall. So while Obama has gained strength and Romney has lost strength on a relative basis among women in March, the relative difference between the genders is actually smaller than it was in October.

That adds some knowledge to our attempt to interpret Obama’s stronger positioning in March, which -- as I noted -- is his strongest position overall in any of the five Swing States polls we have conducted.

Clearly one hypothesis is that something happened between February and March which caused women to move disproportionately (compared to men) toward Obama and/or away from Romney. The data clearly show that the Obama-Romney gap expanded by 14 points among women compared to an expansion of six points among men.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to tease out precisely what's behind these types of changes. There are plausible events out there in the environment that may be involved. One of the most prominent: the fact that the Republicans and Obama got heavily involved in discussions about the role of the government in birth control -- at least indirectly through the insurance provisions of the Affordable Care Act. That could have caused women in the swing states to shift more toward Obama and away from Romney. We can't document empirically, however, just how much that was a factor.

The fact that the current disparity in the presidential preferences between men and women is not as large as it was in October, additionally, suggests that some type of more natural regression back to a larger gender gap may be occurring. 

We’ll look forward to our next Swing States poll, which will be forthcoming in April.  At that point, we will know if Obama's expanded lead over Romney continues, and/or if his expanded gender gap continues as well.

I've been involved in tracking presidential preferences here at Gallup since the 1992 election.  I can say that it is not uncommon for ballot positionings to shift from poll to poll at this stage in the campaign. 
Our own national poll of registered voters, conducted March 25-26 (as opposed to the broader March 20-26 time frame of the Swing States poll), showed Obama with a 49% to 45% lead over Romney. That was up from a dead-even tie in February, but this overall swing in the gap of four points nationally was more modest than the overall swing in the gap of 11 points we found in the swing states.

Obama, as is the case for all Democratic presidential candidates in recent elections, has an advantage among women.  That advantage seems to have expanded in swing states in March, possibly the result of the dust-up over the government's role in birth control.  It will be important to continue to monitor the presidential race in the swing states in the weeks to come. Whatever it was that was behind Obama’s strong positioning overall and among women in the swing states in March could shift by the time of our next measure.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Romney's Deficit Among Highly Religious Republicans

Wisconsin Republicans are slightly less religious than the average Republican across the nation. Exactly 40% of Wisconsin Republicans in 2011 reported attending church weekly (based on Gallup's Daily tracking). The national average is 44%. Republicans in Maryland and the District of Columbia are even less religious, with 38% and 29% weekly church attendance, respectively.

These three entities (two states, one district) are, of course, the ones in which GOP primary voting is taking place today (April 3). The relatively low level of religiosity among all three should work to Romney’s advantage. That’s because Santorum has consistently done best in states with the highest percentage of weekly church attending Republicans -- states like Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Louisiana. And, more generally, as I will get into below, Romney has a real weakness among highly religious Republicans.

Of course, Romney doesn’t have to worry about D.C., where Santorum isn’t on the ballot. In Maryland, the few polls that have been conducted show Romney with a very large lead. Which leaves Wisconsin, the state getting most of the attention today.

In addition to the fact that the Badger State's Republicans are below average in religiousness, we also find that Wisconsin has more Republican Catholics than the average state. More specifically, 36% of Wisconsin Republicans are Catholic, way above the national average of 21% of Republicans who are Catholic. That leaves 53% of Wisconsin Republicans who are Protestant. Only .5% are Mormon.

As I’ve discussed, Santorum has not been able to capitalize on his personal Catholicism as far as voting is concerned. In fact, Romney does better with Catholics than Santorum. So the religious composition of the Republican electorate in Wisconsin, taken as a whole, should benefit Romney (even taking into account that there are very few Mormons in the state).

Maryland's Republicans are 28% Catholic by the way, and D.C.'s Republicans are 27% Catholic. What’s interesting is that D.C. has a very high percentage of Republicans -- 20% to be exact -- who are “nones”; that is, they say they don’t have a formal religious identity. That compares to 9% of the overall GOP population in the country. But again, Romney is poised to pick up DC's delegates regardless.

Overall, Romney appears to be strengthening his position nationally as the choice of Republicans to be their party's nominee. Romney’s overall percentage of Republican support for last week (March 26-April 1) was 42%, his highest weekly percentage since we began tracking. His gap over Santorum last week was 16 percentage points.

Romney beat Santorum last week by a two-point edge, 37% to 35%, among weekly church going Republicans, the first time he’s been even slightly ahead among that group since late February/early march. Romney beats Santorum among those who are less religious by huge margins:  29 points among those who attend almost weekly or monthly, and 27 points among those who seldom or never attend. Clearly church-going remains a variable which has a very strong inverse relationship to Republican support for Romney. This is ironic, since, by many measures, Romney is probably one of the most religious GOP candidates in recent history. 

Is Romney’s weak positioning among weekly church-going Republicans due to his Mormon religion?

My colleague Lydia Saad’s analysis of Gallup data from last summer showed that church attendance was not a strong predictor of respondents’ views on voting for a Mormon for president. And, although the sample sizes are small, my analysis shows that weekly church-going Republicans are less likely than average to say they would not vote for Mormon for president. So I can’t find strong evidence that Romney’s poorer performance among highly religious Republicans in these primaries is due to his Mormonism. More likely it’s due to the perception among highly religious Republicans that Santorum better represents their views on family and values issues.

More broadly, assuming he is the nominee, Romney has his work cut out for him. At the national level, our latest poll shows Romney is trailing Obama by four points among registered voters. This is actually indicative of a close race, given that Romney would probably perform better among registered voters who actually turn out to vote. In 12 key swing states, Obama does better, beating Romney by nine points overall.

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