How turnout trips up pollsters

By Tom Barrett

While declining turnout poses problems for democracy, it also creates practical problems for pollsters.

“If you do a poll that represents 100 per cent of the population, that’s fine,” said Bob Penner, president and CEO of Stratcom.  “But we know 100 per cent of the population doesn’t turn out. Maybe 50 [per cent] turns out. Well, you’ve got to know which 50 per cent that is. Or at least you have to have a pretty good prediction of which 50 per cent that is.

“Because those that turn out usually differ substantially from those that don’t.”

Penner, a veteran campaign pollster, said “the better pollsters” use turnout models that try to predict who’s going to vote. One way to do that is to ask respondents if they’re going to vote. Those answers aren’t always reliable, though.

People who aren’t going to vote may tell pollsters they intend to do so because that’s the socially acceptable answer. Or respondents may intend to vote but then change their minds.

So pollsters can also look at who has tended to vote in recent elections — older people and homeowners are two such groups — and weigh their data accordingly.

Unfortunately for pollsters, the last election won’t be just like the current one, Penner said. “So you kind of have to put it all into the mixer and kind of have to figure it out. And the more times you do it, the better you get at it and the more likely you are to be correct.”

While all good campaign pollsters have some sort of turnout model, most pollsters who make their work public through the media don’t, Penner said. And that affects their accuracy, he argued.

Mario Canseco, vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion,  said his firm does have a method for predicting likely voters.

In last year’s U.S. presidential election, the Reid firm noticed that supporters of Republican Mitt Romney were less committed to voting than those of President Barack Obama, he said. The difference meant that the election wasn’t as close as some pundits were predicting.

“Turnout really hasn’t affected any of our election calls,” Canseco said.

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