Wednesday, April 4, 2018

2016 exit polls were wrong about Democrat voters though it's unlikely the party will accept new reality. White working class voters were greatly underestimated, white college grads overestimated. To make gains in future Democrats should understand legitimacy of immigration issue, that reduction or even pause may be in order-NY Times, Thomas B. Edsall

Immediate implication for Democrats: "Defenders of liberal democracy should acknowledge that controlling borders is a legitimate exercise of sovereignty, and that the appropriate number and type of immigrants is a legitimate subject for debate. Denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as bigotsameliorates neither the substance nor the politics of the problem. There’s nothing illiberal about the view that too many immigrants stress a country’s capacity to absorb them, so that a reduction or even a pause may be in order." Democrat Galston writing
in March 16 Wall St. Journal

3/29/18, "The 2016 Exit Polls Led Us to Misinterpret the 2016 Election," NY Times, Thomas B. Edsall, opinion

"Crucial disputes over Democratic strategy concerning economic distribution, race and immigration have in large part been based on Election Day exit polls that now appear to have been inaccurate in key ways.

According to subsequent studies, those polls substantially underestimated the number of Democratic white working-class voters — many of whom are culturally conservative — and overestimated the white college-educated Democratic electorate, a far more culturally liberal constituency.

“The short answer is that the exit polls are wrong,” Matthew DeBell, a senior scholar at Stanford’s Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, emailed me. He continued: 

"In November 2016, 31.9 percent of adult US citizens had college degrees, according to the Current Population Survey. There were 138.8 million votes. To reach 50 percent of all voters, the turnout rate among college grads would have to have been 97 percent. This doesn’t pass the laugh test; no credible study has ever found turnout rates that high."

The Pew Research Center and the Center for American Progress have produced methodologically sophisticated surveys of the electorate that sharply contradict 2016 exit polls.

Perhaps most significant, a March 20 Pew Research Center public opinion survey found that 33 percent of Democratic voters and Democratic leaners are whites without college degrees. That’s substantially larger than the 26 percent of Democrats who are whites with college degreesthe group that many analysts had come to believe was the dominant constituency in the party.

According to Pew, this noncollege white 33 percent makes up a larger bloc of the party’s voters than the 28 percent made up of racial and ethnic minorities without degrees. It is also larger than the 12 percent of Democratic voters made up of racial and ethnic minorities with college degrees.

In sum, Pew’s more precise survey methods reveal that when Democrats are broken down by education, race and ethnicity, the white working class is the largest bloc of Democratic voters and substantially larger than the bloc of white college-educated Democratic voters.

In a detailed analysis of the 2016 vote, Pew found that 44 percent, or 60.1 million out of a total of 136.7 million votes cast on Nov. 8, 2016 were cast by whites without college degrees — demographic shorthand for the white working class.

Hillary Clinton won 28 percent of white working-class votes, according to Pew, less than Obama’s 36 percent in 2012. Still, a quarter of her total vote of 65.85 million — that is, 16.8 million votes — came from the white working class.

Exit polls are routinely conducted on Election Day by Edison Research for a consortium of news organizations. In 2016, exit polls estimated that the white working class cast a total of 34 percent, or 46.5 million votes out of the 136.67 million ballots cast.

The Pew study, in contrast, found that the white working class cast 44 percent, or 60.1 million votes, of all the 2016 votes for president — 13.5 million more votes than in the Edison Research exit polls.

At the same time, Pew found that whites with college degrees made up 30 percent of the total electorate, not the 37 percent reported in the exit polls. In other words, Pew found that white working-class voters outnumbered white college voters among all voters, while the exit polls reported just the opposite.

These numbers have powerful ramifications for both Democrats and Republicans preparing for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

By showing that the white working class makes up a larger proportion of the electorate than previously reported, the Pew report — taken together with similar results in a study sponsored in November 2017 by the liberal Center for American Progress — strengthens the case made by Democratic strategists calling for a greater emphasis on policies appealing to working class voters and a de-emphasis on so-called identity issues.

The Center for American Progress study by Rob Griffin, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin found

"that exit polls radically overestimated the share of white college-educated voters and radically underestimated the share of white non-college-educated voters. While the exit polls claimed that white college graduates actually outnumbered non-college-educated white voters at the polls in 2016, 37 to 34 percent, CAP’s data indicate a vastly different story: White college graduates were only about 29 percent of voters, while their non-college-educated counterparts far outdistanced them at 45 percent of voters."

I asked Scott Keeter, a senior research adviser at Pew, and Ruth Igielnik, a research associate there, to provide a comparison of 2016 election demographics in the Pew survey data with those in the exit poll data. There were crucial differences, especially in the case of college and noncollege whites.

Edison exit polls taken on Nov. 8 had Clinton failing to carry college-educated whites, losing them to Trump (49-45). Pew found that she did in fact win these voters, decisively carrying white college grads, 55-38.

According to the November exit polls, half of the entire 2016 electorate of all races had college degrees; Pew found that such well-educated voters were a much smaller 37 percent....

The problems of the Edison exit polls are widely recognized in the political science community, but rarely discussed in the media. Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia, noted that the

"biases in the exit polls before they are weighted for the actual vote are well known — they have overrepresented Democratic voters and also now also the better educated who are more likely to vote Democratic."

Christopher Achen, a political scientist at Princeton, wrote me:

"The exit polls have traditionally overrepresented college grads, and even more dramatically postgrads, probably because less-educated people are less inclined to respond to the interviewers unless they are particularly enthusiastic about a candidate and want to say so.

He added that “when I read the Pew report, I thought it was very likely right.”

Ted Brader, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, also emailed:

"the issue with the education distribution is that exit polls could provide, at best, a representative sample of those who turn out to vote, not a representative sample of the voting eligible US population."
Such Election Day polling Brader wrote, is “intended for specific purposes that may not make them even a very good representative sample of those who voted.” Instead, Brader argued, exit polls are "organized principally by news organizations who want to be able to make election night ‘calls’ of winners as soon as they can, and also need to fill the airtime those evenings with commentary by talking heads. The primary goal of exit polls, thus, “is not to provide a representative portrait of the whole electorate.”

Because of their limitations, Brader wrote, “social scientists rarely turn to exit polls to study voting behavior.”

My colleague Nate Cohn, writing for The Upshot, has twice addressed problems in exit polling, first on June 9, 2016, then again on Feb. 27, 2018.

Cohn argued that the exit polls overestimated “Trump’s support among well-educated white voters” and that

"there is no question that the exit polls underestimate the number of white working-class voters, especially older ones, by a considerable amount."

Cohn observed that errors result from “an odd methodological quirk in exit polling” that “winds up biasing the rest of the survey because the exit polls are weighted to match the actual result of a far less educated country.” The net effect:

"The exit poll overestimates Republican support among most demographic groups, including well-educated white voters, and it overestimates the number of voters from Democratic-leaning voting blocs, like young, nonwhite and well-educated voters."

Assuming this critique of the exit polls is correct, what are the implications for Democrats and Republicans?

For Democrats, the Pew and CAP calculations suggest that because the noncollege white vote remains highly significant, the party and its candidates need to prevent any further erosion in this constituency that went so strongly for Trump.

The corollary for Republicans is that the party, already behind in the popular vote, cannot afford to suffer continued losses among college-educated white voters, especially college-educated women. 

Pew found by 2017, a year into the Trump presidency:

"Voters who have completed college make up a third of all registered voters. And a majority — 58 percent — of all voters with at least a four-year college degree now identifies as Democrats or leans Democratic, the highest share dating back to 1992. Just 36 percent affiliate with the Republican Party or lean toward the G.O.P."

This danger has become more acute, according to the Pew study:

"The share of women identifying as Democrats or leaning Democratic is up 4 percentage points since 2015 and is at one of its highest points since 1992."

At the same time, though, Trump appears to be strengthening Republican support among noncollege whites: 

"Voters with no college experience have been moving toward the GOP: 47 percent identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, up from 42 percent in 2014."

The Pew and CAP studies received relatively little publicity compared to the massive coverage of the exit polls, raising the question of how much the political community will adjust to the conflicting data.

Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who studies the intricacies of polling, is not optimistic: 

"In real time on election night, the exit polls set a narrative, and for a long time there is no other data that changes that narrative, and that narrative solidifies into place and it’s really hard to get past it."

Polling that provides an inaccurate picture of the electorate does more than undermine partisan strategy and media analysis. Trevor Tompson, vice president of NORC (formerly the National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago, emailed me:

"The overrepresentation of college-educated voters, and especially those with postgraduate degrees, has long been a known issue with the in-person exit poll."

He then added:

"The bottom line is we need to have much better data for the health of our democracy."

For Democrats, these questions are a matter of competitive survival.

Teixeira of the Center for American Politics and William Galston of The Brookings Institution, two longtime Democratic strategists, suggest different but complementary directions in which to take the Democratic Party going forward.

“No issue has done more than immigration to feed populism, and finding a sustainable compromise would drain much of the bile from today’s politics,” Galston writes. He continues: 

"Defenders of liberal democracy should acknowledge that controlling borders is a legitimate exercise of sovereignty, and that the appropriate number and type of immigrants is a legitimate subject for debate. Denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as bigots ameliorates neither the substance nor the politics of the problem. There’s nothing illiberal about the view that too many immigrants stress a country’s capacity to absorb them, so that a reduction or even a pause may be in order."

Teixeira points out that if Clinton had done as well with white working-class voters as Obama

"she would have carried, with robust margins, the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, as well as Florida and Ohio. In fact, if Clinton could simply have reduced the shift toward Donald Trump among these voters by one-quarter, she would have won."

In Alabama’s special Senate election, Doug Jones, the winning Democrat, would have lost if he had not made substantial inroads with the white working class, Teixeira argued:

"Without the hefty swing among the white non-college population, particularly women, there is no way Jones would have won the state, or even come close."

Teixeira concluded:

"There is no way around it — if Democrats hope to be competitive in Ohio and similar states in 2020, they must do the hard thing: find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters."

Let’s go back to Galston, writing on the Brookings website, presciently, in June 2016. I will quote him at some length, because in my opinion no one captures the situation better than he does:
"Most working-class whites have incomes below $50,000; most whites with BAs or more have incomes above $50,000. Most working-class whites rate their financial circumstances as only fair or poor; most college educated whites rate their financial circumstances as good or excellent. Fifty-four percent of working-class whites think of themselves as working class or lower class, compared to only 18 percent of better-educated whites ….
In many respects, these two groups of white voters see the world very differently. For example, 54 percent of college-educated whites think that America’s culture and way of life have improved since the 1950s; 62 percent of white working-class Americans think that it has changed for the worse. Sixty-eight percent of working-class whites, but only 47 percent of college-educated whites, believe that the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influences. Sixty-six percent of working-class whites, but only 43 percent of college-educated whites, say that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. In a similar vein, 62 percent of working-class whites believe that discrimination against Christians has become as big a problem as discrimination against other groups, a proposition only 38 percent of college educated whites endorse.
This brings us to the issue of immigration. By a margin of 52 to 35 percent, college-educated whites affirm that today’s immigrants strengthen our country through their talent and hard work. Conversely, 61 percent of white working-class voters say that immigrants weaken us by taking jobs, housing, and health care. Seventy-one percent of working-class whites think that immigrants mostly hurt the economy by driving down wages, a belief endorsed by only 44 percent of college-educated whites. Fifty-nine percent of working-class whites believe that we should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries; only 33 percent of college-educated whites agree. Fifty-five percent of working-class whites think we should build a wall along our border with Mexico,
while 61 percent of whites with BAs or more think we should not. Majorities of working-class whites believe that we should make the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States illegal and temporarily ban the entrance of non-American Muslims into our country; about two-thirds of college-educated whites oppose each of these proposals.
Opinions on trade follow a similar pattern. By a narrow margin of 48 to 46 percent, college-educated whites endorse the view that trade agreements are mostly helpful to the United States because they open up overseas markets while 62 percent of working-class whites believe that they are harmful because they send jobs overseas and drive down wages.
It is understandable that working-class whites are more worried that they or their families will become victims of violent crime than are whites with more education. After all, they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with higher levels of social disorder and criminal behavior. It is harder to explain why they are also much more likely to believe that their families will fall victim to terrorism. To be sure, homegrown terrorist massacres of recent years have driven home the message that it can happen to anyone, anywhere. We still need to explain why working-class whites have interpreted this message in more personal terms.
The most plausible interpretation is that working-class whites are experiencing a pervasive sense of vulnerability. On every front — economic, cultural, personal security — they feel threatened and beleaguered. They seek protection against all the forces they perceive as hostile to their cherished way of life — foreign people, foreign goods, foreign ideas, aided and abetted by a government they no longer believe cares about them. Perhaps this is why fully 60 percent of them are willing to endorse a proposition that in previous periods would be viewed as extreme: the country has gotten so far off track that we need a leader who is prepared to break some rules if that is what it takes to set things right."
The bottom line, as the 2016 election amply demonstrated, is that if the Democratic Party does not take the bull by the horns, someone else will."


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