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Politics

2018 Midterms: Reviewing How We Did And One Big Headscratcher…

Before last week’s midterms, we released four public polls covering key races in Tennessee and Florida.

Overall, the accuracy of our polls was quite good.

In Florida, we were one of the few polling organizations to accurately predict narrow one-point wins by former Governor Rick Scott over incumbent Bill Nelson in the senate race and Congressman Ron DeSantis over former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in the race for governor.

Since it’s Florida, we will not know the final vote tally for at least another week while recounts, competing lawsuits, and numerous court decisions decide the final outcome. Regardless, we nailed the election night totals.

Florida Post Mortem.png

In Tennessee, we correctly forecasted an easy win for Republican Businessman Bill Lee over former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the governor’s race. Lee won by a surprising 21 points. The RealClear Politics average predicted a 14-point win and our polling showed a nine-point win.

In looking at the polling of the race, it appears most of the undecided voters ended up voting for the Republican candidate, Bill Lee.

TN Gov Post Mortem.png

The real headscratcher for us was the Tennessee Senate race. Our polling, along with a nearly concurrent poll conducted by East Tennessee State University, indicated a very close race.

Our polling showed former Democratic Governor and Mayor of Nashville, Phil Bredesen tied with Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn at 47% of the vote with 6% of likely voters undecided.

TN Senate Post Mortem.png

Election night, Blackburn won the race easily by 11 points. (55% to 44%)

So what happened? It appears undecided voters broke en masse to the Republican candidate (Blackburn) just as they did in the Tennessee Governor’s race.

We compared our polling by region versus the preliminary vote totals by region. As you can see below, our margins are close to the actual vote in East and West Tennessee.

Targoz Post Mortem Polling Estimates.png
TN Actual Vote By Region.png

So what happened in Middle Tennessee? We had Bredesen up 8 points in Middle Tennessee, but Blackburn won her home region by 6 points. Before serving as governor, Bredesen served two terms as Mayor of Nashville so it was expected that he would do quite well in the region, which also trends Democrat. Blackburn has lived and represented Williamson County (which is just south of Nashville) for many years. However, these results were still a surprise.

We took at a look at the turnout for the state and Metro Nashville Davidson County and Shelby County (Memphis). Statewide, it appears turnout was up 55% over the 2014 midterm elections. In Shelby County, turnout was only up 47% from 2014 and in Metro Nashville Davidson County just 50%.

TN Post Mortem Turnout.png

At first glance, it appears turnout in Davidson and Shelby, both Democrat strongholds, was a bit lower than expected and lagged the increases we saw across the rest of the state. It will be a few more days until we get precinct level data, but it looks like turnout in Shelby and Davidson should have been higher which would have it made it a closer race.

It should also be noted that strong storms roared across the state and the Middle Tennessee area the evening before and during the early morning of election day. Amid power outages and at least one reported death as a result of the storm, turnout could have been negatively affected by the bad weather.

There is one other thing to note about these results.

After the 2016 election, some pollsters and analysts suggested Trump’s surprising win was the result of “shy” Trump voters who were fearful of publicly identifying as a Trump supporter in polls and surveys. I should note, we were not surprised by the win. Our online polling indicated a close race and Trump win in 2016.

Regardless, many pollsters chalked up their misses in 2016 to quiet Trump supporters, and to not including enough working class/blue-collar voters in their polls. To combat this in 2018, most pollsters made changes to their methodologies to ensure voters from all educational backgrounds were included in their surveys, and the results of 2018 shows some improvement.

However, the Tennessee results where it appears undecided voters in both races broke heavily for the Republican candidate is very concerning to me. If we accept the shy voter theory, measuring public opinion in the increasingly uncivil environment we face today will become even more challenging. It’s certainly something we will be investigating over the next few months as more data from this election is released.

Hopefully, we can gain some clarity on these issues before the 2020 elections.

Tennessee Poll: The Race for Senate is Too Close to Call

Like much of the nation, turnout for the midterm election in Tennessee is setting new records. Interest and participation in this election is extremely high compared to recent history.

In the race for Senate, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen are tied (48% to 48%) among likely and early voters. When undecided likely voters are pressed to make a choice (Leaners), both remain tied (49% to 49%).

In the race for Governor, Republican businessman Bill Lee holds a commanding 9-point lead (52% to 43%) over the Former Democratic Mayor of Nashville Karl Dean. When undecided likely voters are pressed to make a choice (Leaners), Lee’s lead remains at 9 points (53% to 44%).

Among early voters, Blackburn holds a 2-point lead over Bredesen and Lee holds a 6-point lead over Dean.

Election day turnout will play a significant role in the selection of Tennessee’s next Senator.

In the Governor’s race, it appears roughly 4% to 5% of likely voters are crossing over from Lee and voting for the relatively conservative Democrat Phil Bredesen who served two terms as Governor in the Senate race.

As mentioned earlier, the state of Tennessee is on pace to set a record for the highest voter turnout in a midterm election. If turnout mirrors the 2016 election for President, Blackburn could achieve a narrow win. Among voters who voted in 2016 and have or plan to vote in 2018, Blackburn leads by 4 points, and Lee leads by a commanding 15 points.

TN Senate Ballot 2016.png
TN Governor Ballot 2016.png

Most public polls show Blackburn and Lee with commanding leads. Based on the results of this poll, it’s possible we will be up late Tuesday night to learn who will represent Tennessee in the Senate next year. Concession speeches in the Governor’s race could occur very early next Tuesday evening.

Methodology

This online poll was conducted with 802 registered voters from October 28-31, 2018 by Targoz Market Research. Respondents were selected from ProdegeMR’s online panel respondents who were matched to voter records from 2016 and 2012. Of the 802 registered voters in the sample, 480 were identified as likely voters including 228 who said they have already voted.

The results reflect a representative sample of registered voters. Results were weighted for age, gender, region, race/ethnicity, income, and political party. Additional behavioral weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

[The poll was conducted by Targoz Market Research of Nashville, TN and was not commissioned or paid for by any candidate or political organization.] RandyEllison@targoz.com; RandyEllison@Twitter

 

Ballot Results: Tennessee Senator

QUESTION: If the Tennessee election for U.S. Senator were held today, would you vote for: (ROTATE)

TN Senate Ballot 2018.png

Ballot Results: Tennessee Governor

QUESTION: If the Tennessee election for Governor were held today, would you vote for: (ROTATE)

TN Governor Ballot 2018.png

Florida Poll: Tight Races for Senate and Governor Could Yield Another Election Night Surprise

Florida Poll: Tight Races for Senate and Governor Could Yield Another Election Night Surprise

Historically, Democrats hold a narrow advantage among registered voters in Florida. However, Republican turnout is generally higher than Democratic turnout on election day.

It appears 2018 could be another repeat of this phenomenon.

Yes, The Election Polls Were Wrong. Here’s How We Fix It.

The cracks in the polling industry have been readily apparent for years and it was only a matter of time before we had a major polling miss in this country. On Monday I offered the following warning about the accuracy of the polls leading up to election day. I knew a surprise was coming thanks to my own online surveys throughout the year.

For years, I’ve been advising clients to move their polls from phone to online. Political and issue-oriented clients have been more resistant to the change, while private firms have embraced the lower cost, quick turnarounds, and improved accuracy offered by online surveys.

Much of the resistance from clients in the public affairs space (i.e. campaigns, associations, public affairs groups, etc.) is due to guidance from groups like FiveThirtyEight, AAPOR, AP, etc. who for years maligned many of the publicly available online polls.

Granted, in some cases their skepticism and criticism was warranted. But it was totally unfair and wrong to advise media and organizations to simply avoid “unreliable” online polls. There’s a lot of good online polling being done right now such as the USC Dornsife/L.A. Times tracking poll that correctly predicted Trump’s victory.

Another factor is resistance to change. Too many pollsters are wedded to phone polling due to the revenue streams associated with a methodology they have used for years that gave them significant professional and financial success.

Those days are now over.

People lack the time or patience to answer a 15-minute phone survey, and the respondents who do stick with it are probably not an accurate reflection of any group other than partisans or people who are natural joiners or volunteers.

Consumers have tools to avoid being interrupted by telephone polls via caller-id and blocking technologies just as they successfully avoid TV commercials with subscription services and time-shifting.

The ability to avoid or the lack of desire to participate in phone polls have led to record low response and cooperation rates. This has been common knowledge for years and it biases survey results. Adding cell phone interviews to this stew helps, but is not a cure, because it’s very expensive and difficult to reach the 40% to 50% of the population without a landline phone.

Respondents are simply more honest answering an online survey compared to surveys that are administered by a live interviewer over the phone. This is especially true when testing voting intentions involving two candidates with off-the-chart negative ratings competing in a highly charged media environment.

Short online surveys are the way to go.

Let me add one caveat.

Most online surveys use a panel of pre-recruited individuals or households who have agreed to take part in online market research. Typically, there are not enough of these panelists to conduct a statistically relevant poll in a smaller geography such as a congressional or state legislative district. However, online is a viable and a preferred option for statewide and larger congressional districts.

Okay. So, we should go ahead and convert our phone polls to online?

No.

You can’t just convert your phone poll to an online survey. It’s not that simple. Online respondents require different questions and different methods to interpret the results.

This was the mistake newspapers made in the early days of online news. They simply took their print product, which was declining in readership, and replicated it online. Not taking advantage of the new technology was a huge mistake. It’s the same for polling. Simply taking a phone poll and asking the same questions online is not advisable.

What do I suggest? I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but these are some ideas that have worked for me.

Shift To Online Polling

There are just too many issues in phone polling, ranging from non-response (i.e. getting a representative sample of people to talk with you) to coverage (i.e. reaching certain segments of the population such as prepaid cell phone households)

Purchase quality online sample or grow your own online panels. Online panel quality matters. A lot. For example, a panel built from coupon clippers and entrants to online sweepstakes, contests, and giveaways will skew your results — unless that’s your target audience.

Respondents are more likely to be honest when answering an online poll. I’ve tested it and so have others. Use this to your advantage. For example, respondents are more likely to state their actual household income when answering an online survey. Ask for their household income in the survey and then use it to weight the data. Too many disregard income questions in phone polls fearing that respondents are less than honest in their answers. If you believe this, then don’t ask the question, or find a methodology such as online where people will accurately answer the question. Stop wasting peoples’ time. It reflects badly on all of us in the industry.

Proper Weighting

We know some population groups are over- or under-represented in a survey sample regardless of methodology. We have to do a better job of weighting (i.e. assigning “corrective” values to each one of the sample responses of a survey) regardless of mode (i.e. online, phone, mail, or in-person surveys) to ensure results reflect the profile of our desired audience for our survey.

This election provides a great example. YouGovUS, an online polling firm, polled throughout this election cycle. While they weighted their results across a host of demographic variables, it doesn’t appear they used household income in their weighting scheme. That was a mistake.

As you can see below, their samples skewed lower income, and Clinton outperformed with lower-income voters while Trump over performed with upper income households. Who knows? If they had factored income in their weightings, perhaps they would have had a better read on this election.

Surveys should be heavily weighted. Just using simple demographics such as gender, age, and ethnicity to weight a survey is insufficient. You have to include attitudinal and behavioral measures in addition to demos such as income if you have any chance of getting useable results. Harris Interactive did a lot of great work in this area in the early days of online polling.

Beware Digital and Social Media Signaling

Use digital and social media analytics to augment your polling, not to replace it. Digital plays a role and in some ways replaces qualitative research. However, in the current media environment, language has been weaponized, especially online. The data you collect from social media will reflect the socially desirable aspects of peoples’ personality or beliefs. People typically put on their best face online so it’s really difficult to determine what is real or simply social signaling.

Shorter Surveys and Polls

People lack the time or patience to answer a 15-minute survey and the respondents that do are probably not an accurate reflection of the overall population. Use third-party data or purchase demographic data from panel providers for variables you need to weight the data. If you have a lot to test, launch multiple short surveys instead of long surveys that respondents hate.

Vary Your Sampling

For political polling, don’t rely solely on verified registered voter files for your samples. Conversely, don’t rely on samples of the general population using screening questions to determine voting status or intent. Do both.

Pollsters are like generals, they’re always fighting the last war and every election is different. Chances are, you will miss. Tight screens might work for one cycle and then be absolutely the wrong option in another cycle. Vary your sampling and you will have a wider range of possible outcomes to review and analyze.

There are no easy solutions to cure what ails the polling industry. Technology has given us better analysis tools while making it more difficult to collect data to analyze.

Typically, when faced with these situations, people focus on what they know and keep doing the same things over and over until they’re forced to change.

Our jobs are too important to simply ignore the serious issues we now face or to leave it to the next generation to address. We need to change and evolve instead of deriding or attacking other ideas on how we should do our jobs.

The suggestions above are just that, suggestions. If you have a better mousetrap or idea, I would love to hear it, and I hope others in the industry are ready to be open-minded, too.

Could The Polls Be Wrong? It’s Possible.

Over this final weekend before the election, Nate Silver FiveThirtyEight has taken fire for being too cautious in forecasting the outcome of tomorrow’s election. Some have charged that his probabilities for a Clinton win are too low. Frankly, I don’t blame him. I would be cautious too.

Silver and crew use a results-validated model to make election predictions. Like any model, the results are only as accurate as its inputs. Garbage in, garbage out.

Silver’s models contain a large number of public phone-based polls that typically include some combination of landline and cell phone interviews. This would make me nervous. Very nervous.

The accuracy of phone polling is declining and has been declining for years for a host of reasons. It’s one reason I’ve shifted everything to online polling. Also, media sponsored public polls are generally less reliable than private campaign polls.

Polling by phone is an increasingly expensive and difficult endeavor. Today, phone polling should include some degree of cell phone interviews to augment standard landline phone interviewing. Adding cell phone interviews to this stew helps, but is not a panacea for reaching the 40% to 50% of the population without a landline phone.

Missing from most cell phone surveys are interviews with voters who are not on a cell phone contract. Pre-paid and pay-as-you-go cell phones are two growth areas in the cell phone industry and at least a quarter of the cell phone population is probably missing from most polls. In the UK and Europe, pre-paid is the bulk of the cell phone market.

Also, including cell phone interviews is very expensive. Legally, cell phone interviews must be hand dialed which increases the labor expense for phone polling and reduces the quantity of available public polls. This is especially true at the state level where local media lack the funds to conduct a series of strong phone polls.

However, simply including cell phone interviews doesn’t cure all the issues faced in polling by phone. Getting a representative sample of respondents willing to complete a survey is difficult. On a good day, we may get 11% of a sample to fully respond to a poll by phone. This is tragically and historically low.

Response rates to surveys also vary by season. Rates are low during holidays (i.e. December) especially among consumer audiences. It’s also difficult to get a representative sample during the summer when people are on vacation, traveling, watching youth soccer and baseball, etc.

October is an equally problematic time for polling. Historically, response rates for October phone-based polls can decline up to 25%. October is the first month of the last quarter of the year and is typically a huge month for business travel. You also have Halloween, a bank holiday, benchmark tests for school students under “No Child Left Behind”, fall breaks, youth sports, etc. October isn’t as bad as December for polling, but it’s not far off. It’s entirely possible that respondents to phone polls in October are not representative of who will show up on election day.

This non-response issue is the likely reason we’ve seen such crazy numbers from the October polls. Take a look at the NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls from October and November. The swing of Clinton from +6 to +9 and +11 and back to +4 are more likely the result of changes in survey response rates than a genuine change in the voting intentions of the electorate.

NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll

It’s wild swings like we see in the NBC Poll and a lot of prior research on phone polling that makes me question most of the current phone based polls. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve shifted to online polling where I typically see more stable numbers without the wild fluctuations we have seen in the phone polls.

Sadly, there are not that many online polls this cycle. Outside of YouGov and newer entries from Google Surveys and SurveyMonkey, we just don’t have a lot to work with. We also don’t have a lot of information on the source of the online sample used by these groups.

Most online surveys use an online panel of pre-recruited individuals or households who have agreed to take part in online market research surveys. Most are compensated in some way and the quality of these samples vary. The quality of the respondents matters a great deal, so it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of these polls without knowing who and how their survey respondents were recruited.

Two polls widely viewed as outliers this cycle are the IBD/TIPP Tracking poll (Phone) and the LA Times/USC Tracking poll (Online). Both polls have been remarkably stable over the final months of this election and both indicate a much closer race than the majority of other public polls. Also, both polls have given Trump leads over the past few months.

One possible reason for the outlier status of these two polls is the use of weighting.

Weighting is a technique in survey research where survey results are re-balanced to more accurately reflect the population you’re polling. A demographic profile (based on known data such as a census age distribution) is often used to rebalance survey results to better reflect real-world results.

From what I can tell, both the IBD/TIPP Tracking poll and the LA Times/USC Tracking poll heavily weight their results beyond measures such as gender, age, party affiliation, and ethnicity. If their use of weighting cures some of the deficiencies in terms of non-response (i.e. households who don’t respond or answer a phone poll) and coverage (i.e. prepaid cell phone households not in the cell phone samples), they might not be outliers after all.

This is especially true for the LA Times/USC Tracking poll which has consistently given Trump a better chance of winning than pretty much any other polling organization. This poll is conducted online, uses a different set of questions than most “traditional” polls, and weights the results across a broad range of measures. This poll is conducted among a sample of respondents that were recruited specifically for this type of research. Their methodology could be an antidote for the problems with traditional polling that I mentioned earlier, or it could be a major factor in being very wrong about this election. They are basically in a go big or go home situation that I totally support. Stick to your guns and if you are wrong, tell us why.

There is some recent precedence for properly weighted online polls outperforming phone polls, namely, Brexit.

Online polls outperformed phone with the UK Brexit vote earlier this year. Phone polls tended to show a win for the “Remain” camp. But online polls by TNS UK and Opinium Research accurately predicted a “Leave” win, and were both viewed as outliers by most pundits. Both also used extensive weighting to ensure their results properly reflected the views of potential voters.

It’s entirely possible that the phone polls of this election could be wrong, and if they are, a large component of Silver’s data-driven election model, will also be wrong. Nate Silver and crew are right to be cautious. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we are shocked by the election results tomorrow night.

Based on the public and private polling I’ve tracked and conducted, I can easily envision three very different scenarios occurring tomorrow night.

Scenario 1: Clinton cruises to an easy three or four-point win in the popular voter and handily wins the electoral vote

Scenario 2: The election is exceptionally close late into the evening and we are up waiting for results from Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada to find out the winner

Scenario 3: Trumps win the popular vote but loses the electoral vote

Scenario three is my nightmare situation, leaving everyone unhappy and providing zero closure to an overly-stressed electorate.

Conventional wisdom has been wrong all year, and I’m totally expecting some type of surprise tomorrow night. It could be a decisive win by Clinton, a close win by Trump, or a deadlocked election.

So forgive me if I don’t jump on the Nate Silver bashing bandwagon. This has been a crazy year and I expect tomorrow to be the same. I just hope we can learn something from this whole episode that helps us learn more about our fellow citizens and how to properly capture their actual thoughts, concerns, and beliefs for future elections.

Journalists Are Out of Touch With Reality

Headlines coming out of the third and final 2016 presidential debate all followed a similar theme: Trump will not commit to accepting the election results if he loses.

The four largest newspapers in the country ran front page headlines that adhered to the same script, echoing post-debate comments from broadcast commentators:

  • Washington Post: “Trump Refuses To Say Whether He’ll Accept Election Results”
  • The Wall Street Journal: “Trump Won’t Commit to Accepting Vote if He Loses”
  • New York Times: “Trump Won’t Say if He Will Accept Election Results”
  • USA Today: “Keep You In Suspense: Trump Won’t Commit To Accepting Vote Results”

Out of a ninety-minute debate, viewed by more than 71 million Americans and covering a variety of topics, this was the major takeaway?

Despite the blaring and repetitive headlines, Americans’ view of this election and whether it’s rigged is unlikely to be shaped by an increasingly out of touch and out of time press.

The belief that Trump’s failure to commit to the outcome of the election was a major gaffe simply illustrates just how out of touch major news organizations are with the country they cover.

Americans increasingly believe the system(s) is rigged against them and view corruption as widespread in government and business. Few will be troubled by Trump’s “rigged” rhetoric since most already believe corruption is a huge problem in the country.

According to Gallup, three in four Americans (75%) perceive corruption as widespread in the country’s government. While this number is from 2014, it’s been steadily increasing since 2007.

So what do Americans fear most? Corrupt government officials. According to the 2016 Chapman University Survey of American Fears, six in ten Americans (61%) identified corrupt government officials as their top fear, eclipsing both terrorist attacks (41%) and not having enough money for the future (40%). Government corruption was also their top fear in 2015.

Americans’ view of government and government officials is dismal and their assessment of the economy and businesses are not any better.

Seventy-one percent of Americans think the U.S. economic system is “rigged in favor of certain groups” according to a June 2016 poll conducted by Marketplace and Edison . This belief was shared regardless of political affiliation or ethnicity.

In a follow-up poll conducted in October 2016, nine out of ten Americans who believed the economic system was rigged in favor of certain groups agreed the U.S. economic system is rigged to benefit politicians (89%) and corporations (86%).

Amidst this backdrop of distrust, why do journalists think voters care if Trump accepts the outcome of November elections? They probably don’t. If anything, they probably agree that it is rigged.

And as much as the legacy press highlights “the gaffe”, their ability to influence voters’ opinion on this topic is increasingly weak. Americans view the press just as negatively as the aforementioned government officials.

In a poll conducted in 2016 by the Media Insight Project for the American Press Institute, less than one in ten Americans (6%) have a great deal of confidence in the press. Four in ten (41%) Americans said they have hardly any confidence at all in the press. In the same poll, more than one out of three (38%) Americans said they have had an experience with a news and information source that made them trust it less.

One of the great challenges ahead is finding a way to restore faith in institutions and most importantly, the press. Sadly, the damage will take decades to repair. These types of initiatives are often generational and will require the passing of significant time before peoples’ memories of this era fade.

The first step to restoring faith in the press is for the media to admit there’s a problem. Second, media organizations need to accept reality and understand how the public actually thinks.

Too many journalists and thought-leaders view the country as they wish it to be and have segregated themselves into hive minds that shelter them from opposing opinions.

Journalists and legacy media are some of the worst offenders of this phenomenon, often opting to challenge the grammar of a dissenting voice than understanding the beliefs and judgments of the messenger. Granted, sheltering yourself, regardless of your profession, against the trolls and vitriol of social media is tempting. However, it skews your view of the country, which is a big problem if you’re a journalist.

Without trust in the press, it’s unlikely faith in any government or political institution will be repaired anytime soon. The divisions and distrust we see today will only continue to grow.

It’s high time journalists and the media return to reality, perhaps survey their audiences to learn how they think, focus coverage on issues the public actually cares about, and then report it accurately.

New Online Voter Panel for Political Polling?

Research Now Group Inc, headquartered in Plano, TX, just launched a new voter panel. This panel allows political pollsters and new tool  to measure American voters’ perception about various issues. It provides insight on voters’  opinions of candidates, voter turnout, key campaign issues, and insights into the perceptions of millennials.

This panel gives researchers access to more than 600,000 deeply profiled, verified voters from every state. Researchers can pick constituents based on party affiliation, historical election turnout, and congressional district among other variables. Panelists can participate in surveys via varying platforms (mobile, tablet, or PC), so all voter populations will be represented.

Research Now has identified hundreds of thousands of voters who are historically hard-to-reach. This includes 70,000 millennials and other voters with no publicly available phone numbers.  This panel is the largest of its kind and marks a new step forward in polling. In recent years, polls have faced a lot of challenges. This is largely due to changes in phone use, caller ID, etc.. Many voters, especially millennials, do not use land-line telephones, so it is difficult to get accurate data. This new panel from Research Now provides a way to access this hard-to-reach population.

While this new panel is a step forward in polling, it is not necessarily the end point for polling improvement. In a previous blog post, I stated that the future of public opinion research lies in a variety of new methods. Social media analysis is one way to gain access to millennials and see their voting preferences, but it is also complicated and not always reliable. Biometrics technology can better understand voters’ tendencies and opinions. A combination of methods while using panels like the new Research Now panel will be key parts of the toolkit for public opinion researchers and it will be interesting to see what other technology emerges as the 2016 race for president continues.    

Polling: What Can We Learn From the UK?

 While I do not normally follow British politics, I am interested in the opinion polling around their May elections. Polling is heavily relied on during campaigns so candidates know where they stand with the public and where they could improve. It also provides content for desperate reporters and news agencies looking to fill time and column inches.

The accuracy of the pre-election polls are important not only for people who want to know who is currently in the lead, but also for political campaigns searching for an edge for their candidate.

The opinion polls leading up to this year’s UK elections were particularly inaccurate. Nearly every popular poll had the conservative and labour parties placed within one percent of each other. The polls indicated that this election would likely be “hung” and that no party would have majority seating in the UK’s parliamentary system.

What actually happened is that the conservative party won the, albeit slight, majority of seats. The conservatives, led by David Cameron, secured 331 seats, which puts them in the majority (majority is considered 326 seats). Labour secured 232 seats, Scottish National Party (SNP) secured 56 seats, the Liberal Democrats retained 8 seats, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) now has 1 seat, and other parties make up 22 seats.

Clearly, what actually happened is very different from the neck-and-neck dead heat that the polls predicted.

So, what happened? What went wrong with the polling?

Multiple sources (FiveThirtyEight, Telegraph, and The Conversation) have ascribed the misses to a failure of sufficiently accounting for the documented late swing towards the incumbent party (the Conservatives). This swing is something that traditionally happens in UK elections. According to Leighton Vaughan Williams’s article on The Conversation, another problem involved an overestimation of the amount of people that would be voting. The Conversation also points to the methodology of pollsters. Pollsters in most of these polls only supplied party names (conservative, labour, etc) instead of actual candidate names, which tends to “miss a lot of late tactical vote switching.” The late swing of votes, inaccuracies in voter turnout, and issues with the pollsters’ methodology account for possibilities of why the pollsters were so inaccurate. 

Granted, polling UK voters is a historically difficult task. Polls in the 1992 election were more inaccurate than this election and history repeated itself in 2015.

So, what does this mean for the future? Is this a harbinger for our elections in 2016?

It’s no secret that traditional polling methods are quickly becoming outdated. According to MPR news, political polling is evolving to monitor social media usage along with social media analytics. Another type of emerging technology in campaigns is biometrics.

While some countries have started to use biometrics at polling stations to help with voter identification, biometrics has the potential to be more. Using biometrics for polling purposes can help the system be more effective since it measures how much a specific person agrees with a statement, question, or wants to vote for a candidate. Even though this technology is new and still in development stages, I think it will change the accuracy and landscape of campaign research. The US presidential race of 2016 is sure to demonstrate some new polling methods, and it will be a good opportunity to observe what does and does not work in a rapidly changing industry. 

Americans Support Fracking and the Keystone Pipeline

Keystone Pipeline

Gauging public opinion based on what you hear and see in the news or emanating from Hollywood is always a dicey proposition. Oil pipelines and fracking are just the latest examples of how the media are often out of sync with most consumers.

While the media and Hollywood oppose expansion of fracking and the Keystone pipeline, U.S. consumers solidly support both issues.

The Robert Morris University Polling Institute found that more than half (56%) of Americans favor hydraulic fracturing even in their own community. It’s one thing to support fracking in someone else’s backyard, it’s quite another when your support it in your own community.

The lingering sluggish of the economy has taken a toll on middle income Americans and fuel costs are as important to this group as food and shelter costs. The promise of cheaper oil and natural gas is a huge selling point to struggling consumers.

Most Americans also support building more pipelines.

In a survey commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, 8 in 10 Americans are in favor of building new pipelines and other energy infrastructure. The survey also found that 7 in 10 respondents back the Keystone XL pipeline proposal.

When it comes to pocketbook issues like fuel costs, most consumers will support initiatives that would put more of their money back into their pocket, especially in an economy this tight. Opposition to fracking and Keystone are both losing propositions.

Opposition To The Affordable Care (ACA) Holds Steady

Fifty-two percent of American adults polled by Gallup disapprove of the Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare). Forty-two percent believe their family would fare worse under the law.

Among the forty-four percent who support the law, 22% think it will help their family and 33% think it will have little effect. As you might guess, support was higher among Democrats and among people without health insurance.

Gallup’s findings mirror a CNN/ORC International survey conducted near the same time. In the ORC survey 43% of the public back the ACA, while 54% of the respondents say they are against it.

These findings mirror what we have seen in our own polls. A majority have opposed the bill since the law’s passage in 2010. The stability of these numbers has been rather remarkable over the past few years.

Repairing Damaged Brands… And Damaged Political Parties

Damaged brands can recover. So can damaged political parties. Companies and individuals ranging from Dell, Michael Vick, to Tylenol have made amends or reinvented themselves in such a manner that has rebuilt their trust with the public.

So how do you do it? How does a political party do it?

It’s the same prescription for both: Stop ignoring your customers’ needs and pretending that they don’t matter. Show some compassion and demonstrate that you are suffering the same maladies as your voters. Prove to them that you really care and that you are willing to make things right. Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” was incredibly effective for a reason.

Voters, like customers, are connected. If you lose one, you lose their friends, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, etc.

Every candidate is an extension of a brand and is acting on behalf of their party. It only takes one stupid/careless/ignorant statement by a down-ticket candidate to wreck every other candidate with an R by their name.

Voters never forget. But they might be persuaded to forgive you if given a reason to.

Welcome change and outside help. Reach out to voters and ask them to help you improve. Identify what voters need and want from you and try to deliver. Give them something to rally around, something that is relevant to their needs.

Don’t be desperate and don’t pander. Be genuine. Voters can smell a con job. They also can smell fear. They will not jump on the squishy crisis train. Be confident about who you are and why you can make a difference in their lives. You also have to show them how it will make a difference in a language they can understand.

Constantly ask voters for advice on how you’re doing and make them part of the rebranding effort.  Create a community online and offline who can be part of the process and keep them up to date with your progress, where you are headed, and how their contributions are part of the path. If they are involved with the process they will be committed to ensuring that their efforts will be successful.

The Unemployment Rate Controversy & Presidential Politics

Positive unemployment numbers were all over the press Friday and markets were up across the board. Since most financial reporters simply rewrite the BLS press releases, here’s a quick explanation of the report and the controversy around the numbers.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate declined by 0.2 percentage points in January to 8.3 percent. 

While today’s unemployment numbers are positive and show continued improvement, these numbers probably overstate the pace of recovery.

As Zero Hedge points out, there are some curious changes in the number of people not in the labor force which impacts the numbers:

A month ago, we joked when we said that for Obama to get the unemployment rate to negative by election time, all he has to do is to crush the labor force participation rate to about 55%. Looks like the good folks at the BLS heard us: it appears that the people not in the labor force exploded by an unprecedented record 1.2 million. No, that’s not a typo: 1.2 million people dropped out of the labor force in one month!

The Labor Force Participation Rate declined to 63.7% in January. This is the percentage of working-age persons in an economy who are employed or are unemployed and actively looking for a job. This rate is well below the typical 66% to 67% rate we experienced for most of the past 20 years.

The participation rate data is the source of the controversy.

Every January, the BLS data includes updated population estimates from the 2010 Census. The change sets a new population base and in accordance with usual practice, BLS does not revise previous household survey estimates.

So the headlines from the BLS release proclaim an unexpected improvement in the unemployment rate. However, the improvement probably exists due to the changes in the population figures and the participation rate, not a sudden surge in hiring. 

When you combine the decreases in the participation rate with modest increases in employment, you see the overall improvement in the unemployment rate that is being widely reported today.

Is the employment market improving? Yes.

Is it robust growth? Probably not.

Was this a positive report? Maybe. But it will take a few more releases to work out the statistical noise related to adjustments in the calculations to really know.

Why all the yelling and controversy?

Only one U.S. president since World War II -- Ronald Reagan -- has been re-elected with a jobless rate above 6 percent. Reagan won a second term in 1984 with 7.2 percent. Since it is an election year, you can expect more charges of manipulating the data from all sides depending on the monthly changes between now and November.

One thing is for sure, I don’t think anyone expects the rate to drop to 6% by November. If it even gets close, expect a lot of continued howls about manipulation of the data by the BLS.

The Coming Divorce Boom

During a recession, consumers typically build up their savings and hold off on purchases due to uncertainty about the economy. Following a recession, we often see a burst of economic activity thanks to an increase in consumer confidence and spending.

Pent-up demand can cover everything from auto sales to home purchases to travel. It can also lead to a surge of activity in areas outside of consumer products or services.

One such area is divorce.

As you can see from this chart, divorce rates typically fall as unemployment rates rise.

US Unemployment and Divorce Rates 2000 to 2009

As we begin to see improvement in the economy, we will probably see increased rates of divorce as consumers become more confident in the stability of their incomes, the outlook for the economy, and their ability to form a separate household.

The relationship between labor force participation and divorce has been studied by economists for many years. The prevailing wisdom among most economists (explained in more detail in this 2004 AEJ paper) theorizes that female labor force participation increases income, financial independence, and consequently, the probability of divorce. Financial independence is generally regarded as the strongest of these factors.

As we see continued improvement in the economy over the next couple of years, we should see a pickup in home sales, rentals and probably household formations as current single households become two households.

This has implications for many industries outside of divorce attorneys. We should see an uptick in home sales, cosmetic surgery as newly singled couples prepare for finding new mates, and stronger traffic for dating websites. This also impacts fashions and apparel styles since singles and divorcees tend to be more fashion conscious than married couples with children. Apparel sales should benefit from the coming boom as well.

This also has implications on voting and elections.

Ending a marriage is a stressful process that frequently disrupts familiar routines, including voting. Married adults are more likely to vote than those who have never been married; in turn, previously married people are the lightest voters.

Because voting requires two considered routine actions (registration and turnout), divorce negatively impacts voting. Married partners have help with household tasks and also most of the chores associated with voting: not only registration, but also locating polling places or obtaining absentee ballots.

After the 2012 elections where turnout should be relatively strong for a myriad of reasons, we should start to see decreasing levels of voter turnout over the following few cycles as the economy continues to recover from the great recession, and unfortunately, due to an increasing number of dissolving households.

 

No Double Dip Recession. What Does Consumer Confidence Really Mean?

Looks like the double dip recession predicted for the U.S. in three consecutive summers will again fail to arrive at the party.

Construction:

Retails Sales:

 Employment:

While the recovery remains exceptionally weak, it does not appear that we will face a second recession in the near future. This assumes (a very big assumption) that we do not face any additional policy headwinds from Washington D.C. leading up to the super budget committee deadline. It also assumes that Europe will continue to kick the can down the road, which will lead to continued volatility in the stock markets with minimal impact on the U.S. economy.

One weak area is consumer confidence, which slumped in October to the lowest level since the recession. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index’s monthly expectations gauge dropped to minus 45, the worst reading since February 2009.

The weakness in consumer confidence is more a function of the political climate and lack of faith in political leadership rather than a barometer on the current state of the economy.

If consumers have confidence in the political leaders who shape economic policy, this may enhance their confidence in the future of the economy. If people believe that political leaders are incompetent, this may lead to a lack of confidence in the economy. Since the public's confidence in our leadership in Washington is at all time lows, I am opting for the latter scenario.

While politicians try to influence both the economy and economic sentiment, much of their effort has little direct influence on the economy, but it may well have an impact on economic sentiment. Sentiment can also be influenced by poll respondents’ tendency to view the economy as something separate from their own personal financial situation. Quite often, respondents to polls will have a rather dour outlook on the economy while they rate their own economic situation as good. I often hear focus groups participants say, “I’m doing okay, but my neighbors and people in my community are really struggling.”

Consumer confidence is an important part of the picture that typically says more about the mindset of the public instead of the current dynamics of the economy.

Jobs Are the Number One Issue on Voters’ Minds

According to 13 issues Gallup measured in their March poll, 71% of Americans say they worry about the economy "a great deal," more than they worry about 13 other issues. 64% worry a great deal about federal spending and the budget deficit. Gallup has tracked 10 of the 14 items measured this year every year since 2001, except for 2009.

Federal spending/the deficit as well as the size and power of the federal government are new to the list this year.

The economy and unemployment were top-ranking concerns for Republicans, Independents, and Democrats and will undoubtedly be the number one issue for any elections held in the next 12 to 18 months. Having completed several focus groups with likely voters over the past few weeks, I can definitely attest to the strength of the jobs issue and its potential impact on the next cycle of elections.

Poll Today, Gone Tomorrow

The latest employment numbers continue to show significant improvement in the economy. Granted, the recent numbers have been a jumbled mess due to Easter and the Census. But if you look below the misleading headlines and campaign speeches, you will find significant improvement.

It looks like the private sector produced 123,000 jobs in March and 60% of all reporting industries indicated job growth. I think it is now safe to say the economy is growing again and the recession did indeed end in July or August of last year. We have turned a corner and the immediate future is looking better.

Granted, the picture is not completely rosy. Those unemployed less than 26 weeks are likely to get recalled to work. However, those unemployed for more than 26 weeks due to a plant closure will probably remain unemployed for a significant amount of time. 

Moderate GDP growth of 2 to 3 % for 2010 and 2011 is definitely on tap.

One thing to watch out for is the impact of a growing economy on the fall elections. Republicans have partially enjoyed relative strength on most generic polls due to the problems in the economy. As the economy begins to expand, democratic candidates in communities with less structural unemployment (i.e. areas without significant plant closures) will be able to point to the improvement in the economy and make the case that their policies are working.

A key to successfully interpreting research is to realize that polling and market research is a snapshot of today, not tomorrow. When assessing the results of any project, you have to include other inputs and information (such as economic data) to really understand what is happening and most importantly what you will face tomorrow or in November.

Staying Ahead of the Curve (Keeping An Eye On DC)

With all of the talk about an amnesty bill in DC, I don’t’ think it is a coincidence that AARP is expanding its Latino-oriented, Spanish-language media properties. The expansion will will debut with the Spring issue of AARP's quarterly bilingual magazine, AARP VIVA Su Segunda Juventud. The brand will also extend into a TV show, radio series and Web site.

AARP is usually ahead of the curve in DC and is a great example of an organization that keeps an eye on the political tealeaves when looking for opportunities to grow. This is an important lesson for every business. One change in law can have a dramatic impact on your business. Keep an eye on Washington and plan accordingly. It could be the difference between a very good year, or very very bad one.