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No Wave

October 9th, 2014, 11:35am by Sam Wang

Today let’s back up a step, and not focus so much on individual polls, or even single races. A larger picture emerges if we look at recent polls in the Senate and the House, as well as President Obama’s net disapproval rating.

Taken in full, polls indicate a continuation of recent polling trends: a House that looks a lot like 2012, and at least three Senate races within a single percentage point (IA, CO, KY), with control of the chamber going either way in November. Overall, Republicans are still headed for a good year in the Senate, driven in large part by the fact that many Senators who are up for re-election ran in 2008, a Democratic wave year.

There is one piece of genuine news, which concerns the Kansas election.

Presidential net disapproval: a slow recovery for Obama?

First, let’s take a look at the net approval-minus-disapproval for President Obama. At the moment, it looks like he has recovered by about 3 percentage points since summer:
This number is used by political scientists and some prognosticators as a predictive tool for Congressional elections. However, we only know a little about how well its movement is predictive of downticket races. In 2012, I estimate approximately 1 Democratic Senate seat per 1% of Obama-Romney margin. This year, it’s much lower, about 0.3 Senate seat per 1% in Obama net approval. It’s a noisy measurement, so should be considered with care. The one thing I will say for certain is that this number shows no evidence of strong movement toward the Republicans.

House outlook: Modest or no GOP gains

Now let’s look at the generic House poll, which asks “which party’s candidate will you vote for in your local race in November?”

This graph shows the median of the most recent three weeks, plotted over time. The current range is between D+1% (CNN) and R+7% (Fox and CBS). I wrote in August that the 2014 election was shaping up to be a ripple, not a wave. There’s nothing here to contradict that. With a current poll median of D+1%, Democrats have a good chance of winning the popular vote.

There’s a distinct possibility that the seat count might hardly change at all. Using a rough conversion factor of 3 House seats per 1% in the generic Congressional poll, the range of outcomes relative to 2012 is currently looking like zero change to a GOP gain of 9 seats. Compare that with 2010, when Republicans gained an amazing 63 seats. So 2014 isn’t a wave.

Senate outlook: Are Georgia, Kentucky, and Kansas re-entering competitive territory?

For weeks or longer, the Georgia and Kentucky Senate races were looking strong for the Republicans. Recent results have called that into question.

First, two new Georgia polls show David Perdue (R) leading Michelle Nunn (D) by only 1 or 2 percentage points. These were taken before the recent attacks painting Perdue as an outsourcer of jobs. The next poll will be a highly useful data point.

Second, Kentucky is looking distinctly un-rosy for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R). The four polls in the PEC median are showing McConnell +1.0±2.2%, basically a toss-up. Compare that with the 4-5 percentage point lead he showed back in August. That’s real slippage.

I’ve been writing about the Senate field narrowing to four or five close races. At this point, the field might be shifting, or even expanding. Keep an eye on the top eight races in The Power Of Your Vote (see the right-hand column): AK, AR, CO, GA, IA, KY, LA, and SD. Also note the ActBlue and NRSC links.

Fox polls: two or three fingers on the scale

Some of you commented about a burst of Fox polls yesterday showing a potential bloodbath for Democrats. However, as Canadian fan pointed out, the Fox polls assume 2010 levels of turnout, i.e. a Republican edge of 7 percentage points. As I showed you above using the generic Congressional polls, there is little sign of a 2010-style wave.

Canadian fan said that FiveThirtyEight is using a 3.6% correction for house effects to compensate for Fox’s bias. This house-effects correction is probably a step in the right direction. However, one problem is that a fixed correction does not take into account that the effect can change over time. In this case, the estimate of 3.6% bias towards the GOP might change over time. I believe HuffPollster has a more dynamic approach, which if so might be a better idea. We can make our own estimate fairly easily.

As an exercise, browse through polls where other recent surveys are available: KS-Sen, KS-Gov, and CO-Gov. You will find that the Fox polls are more favorable to Republicans by 4%, 8.5%, and 4% relative to other polls done around the same time. This is an average bias of 5.5 ± 1.5% (SEM).

As everyone knows, I am no fan of unskewing. It allows personal bias to creep in. Also, there is uncontrolled uncertainty that goes with not knowing if a pollster has changed methods since the last poll. But if we were to unskew these Fox polls, we would get the following:

AK-Sen: Sullivan +4% becomes Begich +1.5%
CO-Sen: Gardner +6% becomes Gardner +0.5%
AR-Sen: Cotton +7% becomes Cotton +1.5%
KS-Sen: Roberts +5% becomes Orman +0.5%
KS-Gov: Brownback +6% becomes Brownback +0.5%
KY-Sen: McConnell +4% becomes Grimes +1.5%

Most of these are not a huge surprise: Arkansas, Colorado, and Kentucky are all very close races. Alaska looks a bit close, but at this point a number of other polls show Sullivan in the lead. Overall, the close match with other pollsters (once the bias is subtracted) means that Fox’s polls are done according to high standards…just with a rather different turnout model. Anyway, Fox’s results go right into the PEC algorithm, with no unskewing!

The real news here is both the Kansas governor and Senate races have tightened up considerably. One thing that’s changed recently is that Orman has been losing support among independents. He is likely to still be in the lead…but that could change in the coming weeks. As per usual, we have to wait for more polls.

Tags: 2014 Election · House · President · Senate

38 Comments so far ↓

  • Sean

    When a company corrects a survey, how much over correction can be caused a snap back by those surveyed?

    Thus if Orman is shown to be losing in the independents, how many more independents will leave him as a result of the poll.

    Have polls started to be the guiding factor of a following rather than leading, i.e. “If a 70+% of Kentucky thinks we need to dump Mitch, why should I stand in the way.”

    Have polls become, in a way, guiding the undecided to a candidate?

  • Nancy McCampbell

    I am watching you, like a HAWK. I am now on “Team Sam!” But we have a ‘viable’ Candidate, a GREAT Candidate, for U.S. Senate, and no one is working HER, into your equation! Amanda Curtis!

    Please check her out. She has been endorsed by Kirsten Gillibrand, AND Elizabeth Warren, by NAME! Any MANY other, Organizations!

    Please look into this! We are way up North. The “Turn The South Blue” Frankly scares me!

  • Fel Martins

    The difference between this analysis and the one 538 had yesterday on the Fox poll is striking. I’m liking you more and more by the day.

    • Matthew

      Are you going to have a meltdown on Fox news like Karl did when his attempt to “unskew” the polls turned out wrong?

    • Sam Wang

      Thanks for your…concern. The guy with the best record in 2012 doesn’t have a motivation to unskew.

      Anyway, I’m not Rove, I’m the dude backstage at the computer. I’m actually doing that for another organization.

  • Bill Mason

    Hi Sam,

    I think Kansas is represented in your Senate.polls.medians file by the line:

    0 1 10.0 0.0500 282 6

    If I read this line correctly it is not based on any polls, but puts Orman at +10 “by hand” so to speak. But Huffpost pollster is showing 7 polls with Orman versus Roberts only, no Taylor. When are you going to start using polling data from Kansas?

    • Sam Wang

      No, it’s in the calculation. We currently have Orman +5%, which is the median of 7 polls including the two that came out yesterday. It’s manually updated at a step that comes after that file. Now that HuffPost has a stable feed, we will be able to fix up the file shortly.

    • Bill Mason

      Yes, I had just noticed that line 131 of senate_estimator.m overwrites the Kansas polling data.

  • securecare

    This is an interesting interview interested parties should listen to and pay attention to Mr. Greeberg’s reasoning.

  • bks

    I’m sure recent polling in South Dakota has been mentioned elsewhere, but:

    • Steve

      Now that Pressler is intimating he would caucus with Democrats, how will that be reflected in the PEC model?

    • Sam Wang

      Good question. I think we should stick with calculating the “D+I” seat number. That’s straightforward, computationally.

      The question is how to display the equivalent of the green Orman bar. If he’s committed to caucusing D, that would remove the need to show a fourth color.

  • Mark Buckley

    One thing Fox News does do well is informing the American voter exactly what the Republican philosophy is on all issues foreign and domestic . And it is no accident that before Fox ( 1990 ) Republicans won the popular vote in 5 of 6 Presidential cycles , after Fox they’ve lost 5 out of 6 . Can’t run to the middle in the General as well as they used to with all that information out there .

    • Davey

      That’s an interesting theory – I’m not sure how we’d qualify the effect of voter misinformation, but if we had lots of money we could poll and try to ascertain how many Republicans don’t vote because Fox fed them polls that made it appear to be an assured win…based on turnout, which they just reduced by discouraging voting through a skewed poll. This election could provide several possible case studies of this. If on election eve Fox has the “sinister six” all going GOP and 3-6 do not, we might be able to measure the overconfidence effect.

  • Jena

    Senate math seems impossible to some Democrats

    By Jake Tapper, Chief Washington Correspondent
    updated 1:46 PM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014

    What to make of this? A real downer. Kind of discouraging less than a month before the elections.

    • Violet

      Jake Tapper is kind of a hack, though, not much better than Chuck Todd in his inability to drill down and ask tough questions of Republican mouthpieces.

    • Sam Wang

      that was a typo. It should be “Senate Math Seems Too Difficult For Some Analysts”

  • Violet

    The economy and jobs picture are both soaring, the Dow is up over 10,000 points, the deficit is down. The fact that Obama has such a high disapproval rating really depresses me about the intelligence and logic of the American people. Much as I dislike Fox and Right-wing pundits, I admire their ability to sway public opinion, and am frustrated by Obama and Dems’ failure to tout their accomplishments.

    • Jim

      I have a theory, but frankly it is based upon little more than hope.

      My theory is that we have gradually entered into a new era when ratings for all politicians are at an all-time low. And while Obama’s numbers seem (ok, are) low in historical terms, his ratings (I think) are still much higher than the Republican (and Democratic) party.

      In other words, America doesn’t like him, but they like everyone much less.

      If this theory (or hope) has any support, then perhaps a president’s favorability rating no longer is the touchstone that it used to be.

    • Davey

      Sorry…math nerd…the Dow was 8,000 when Obama took office so it’s up about 9,000 points, a 212.5% increase to Bush’s 33% decline.

      Anyway…to your point…having studied economics, recoveries usually last XX amount of time, then a boom, then a slow down. If we had more aggressively pursued stimulus, we would probably be in the middle of a true boom rather than a meek recovery. However, this also makes it possible that the pent-up demand that creates a boom post-recovery is still coming, and that the GOP’s obstruction that intended to give them a 2012 win have only succeeded in delaying that boom to smack dab in the middle of the 2016 election.

      If during the summer of 2016 the Dow is over 20,000 and unemployment is 4.5% and people are working and investing, make no mistake: Dems will leverage this for a November win with a possible takeover of both sides of Congress.

    • securecare

      Jim, listen to the interview @my Oct 9, 2014 at 2:02 pm. Greenberg has data along those lines.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Wages still aren’t up, and there are a lot of long-term underemployed working part-time jobs just to stay afloat. Unemployment’s down, but for most people it’s not a great recovery. Meanwhile, all these scary things are happening overseas and the media are hyping the Ebola virus and ISIS to high heaven.

      You know and I know that the continuing economic trouble’s mostly because of Republican Congressional sabotage of everything Obama’s tried to do. Public sector employment has shrunk through this recovery; that’s basically unprecedented. It takes a toll.

      But people look at the top line, the guy in the White House, and if they’re not feeling great they blame him.

  • Aaron Booth

    Judging on your Grimes +2: Are you having some problem pulling new polls or something? There has been at least one poll since the Survey USA poll, namely Fox, that has been released for this race. Also, why didn’t Kansas shift after the CNN and Fox polls from yesterday?

  • Stuart

    Sam, things are so crazy right now (S.D., Kan., Iowa, who knows where else) that I’m not sure polls are worth much. People seem to be changing their minds a lot lately, thrashing about.

    In Florida, Scott won by about two votes four years ago, and it seems like he’ll win by two votes this time. If that happens everywhere else, what doesn’t look like a wave now could turn into one.

    • atothec

      I think it’s less likely that people are changing their minds back and forth and more likely that certain pollsters have their thumbs on the scale e.g. Fox, Ras, Gravis and those weird Quinnipiacs. The Stan Greenberg interview is enlightening in that way since he articulates demographic shifts in voter preference that are under the radar. Just like in 2012. Remember how many pundits were dead certain Romney was going to win or at worst tied? If it weren’t for Nate and Sam that would have been the conventional wisdom. This is also why I think so many conservatives are convinced the election was stolen.

      This is a major election. There is a lot at stake, especially for Rove and the Kochs. This is the most important midterm election in a long time IMO.

  • Peter

    Interesting discussion on Fox LV filter on DKE when it came out – basically the wording suggests they only included voters who participated in every one of the last four elections. Which is a mite… Ridiculous.

  • Alan Koczela

    In my opinion, the media will call this a “wave” if the Rs take the Senate — regardless of what happens with the House or the governors. It makes for a better headline. Even if the Rs run the board and take all 17 House tossups listed on realclearpolitics, I would hardly call this a wave. Also, Ds are in an excellent position to pickup a few governor races. Everything seems to be shaping up into the close election everyone thought at the beginning of the year.

    Still, there are worrying signs, even in PEC’s model. The meta-margin tanked in late September and is bouncing around R territory. And, the likelihood D+I number is below 50%. (It may have hit this territory before when Dr. Wang was re-calculating the model.) These should be worrying signs for Democrats. No need to panic, but, if you’re not concerned, you’re a fool. Things can still turn around, but it doesn’t look good and time is getting short. (Please, don’t talk about the “ground-game,” it sounds desperate — like that old IL election-night canard about waiting for the down-state vote.)

    • Sam Wang

      I agree in every respect. This is definitely a time of concern for Democrats.

      In regard to “ground game,” I agree that just talking about it is somewhat desperate. However, actually participating in ground game…that is an integral part of a campaign, and a practical and necessary course of action. The fact is that election results deviate from Election Eve polls, typically squeezing out a little more for Democrats than polls would indicate. Is that pollster error? Or is it efforts by activists that surpass voter tendencies? We don’t know – but in either case, get-out-the-vote is what campaigners do before and on Election Day.

      One note: no, the probability didn’t go below 50% a few weeks ago – we were heavily weighted toward the long-term forecast at the time.

    • Violet

      Agree with Sam. Of course there is a lot for Dems to be concerned about, but I believe they are more focused on the ground game than they were in 2010, and are much more sophisticated now than they used to be in prior mid-term elections.

      The way pundits are talking about the Republican chances, you would think it was an 80% chance, but 49-53% chance of a Republican takeover isn’t as “likely” as one would think from the talking heads in political media.

    • Matt McIrvin

      “Also, Ds are in an excellent position to pickup a few governor races.”

      And possibly lose Massachusetts, thanks to the Mass. Democratic Party’s inability to stop nominating Martha Coakley.

  • Dean

    Iowa, Georgia and Kentucky are the races that are really interesting to me right now. It appears that Grimes and Nunn have some momentum, and the races have become closer.

    Iowa should be pretty close also.

    I would love nothing more than McConnell losing in Kentucky. This man wants to kick hundreds of thousands of poor and middle class Kentucky residents off of health insurance by repealing Obamacare “root and branch.” Kentucky’s uninsured rate plummeted thanks to the ACA.

  • Bert

    The President has a low approval rating. All Republicans have to do is win in states that Romney won in 2012 to win the Senate. And yet the Senate is still a toss up. That alone tells you that this isn’t a wave yet.

  • Jay Wilson

    Hi Sam,

    After I see one of those Obama approval headlines, I like to look up the Pollster chart. I always click the create your own tab. Then I uncheck adults, and registered voters in the subpopulations drop down menu.

    One could also accomplish this by unchecking every polling house except Rasmussen in the pollsters drop down menu. I’m somewhat uncomfortable using only Rasmussen polls. However less uncomfortable than I would be with Apples, Peaches, and Pears in the same basket.

    Today the net approval-minus-disapproval is -8.1% by this method. I checked the other subpopulations and found adults at -10.9%, and registered voters at -11.1%

    How do you deal with adult and registered voter polls for your Obama net approval/disapproval chart?

  • JayBoy2k

    There is an interesting article from WP’s Election Lab this morning because they are one of the most heavily favoring Rs for the Senate.
    I like the fact that they stake out an answer to “What constitutes Winning for a Polls Aggregator?” Since many/most models are calling the individual senate races the same, it must be more than just getting the all races correct. Election Lab is arguing for the overall probability of taking the Senate — In their case 95% R.
    They recognize that winning a specific year election does not validate a model as well as long term success and they are pretty much out on a limb if Ds hold the senate.
    I would describe their model as pure “current” polls only with a dash added for candidate poll consistency.

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