A Quick Note on Interpreting Poll Results

In The New Republic:

“In Virginia, I’ve argued,Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds, who on his record and on the issues had much to recommend him, suffered at least in part from identification with Obama and the national party.

“The disapproval of Obama among Virginia voters, which began to climb in late July, may have affected their enthusiasm about Deeds. In the final edition of the exit polls, 51 percent of Virginia’s voters disapproved of how Obama has done his job, and 94 percent of them voted for McDonnell. More important, perhaps, is that a lack of enthusiasm about Obama and the national party may have affected turnout.”

It’s true– according to the New York Times exit polls, 51% of voters in Virginia disapproved of Obama, and 94% of those people voted for McDonnell.  That group alone gave McDonnell about 48% of the total vote count.  But– McDonnell didn’t squeak by.  He got about 58% of the vote.  That other 10% came from people who support Obama.  The problem for Deeds wasn’t the approximately half of people who disliked a Democratic President and voted Republican in a closely-divided state, it was the fact that of the 49% of people who approved of Obama, 20% voted for McDonnell.  Had the race been a referendum on Obama, Deeds would have fared far better than he actually did.

To be fair, most of the piece focuses on the issue of turnout.  But even there, the case is weak.  The author spends time mulling over the lack of enthusiasm among African Americans in 2009 as opposed to 2005, but this had no bearing on the outcome of the race– even in 2005, African American voters constituted less than 1% of those casting ballots in Virginia.  He argues that high unemployment is suppressing Democratic turnout, but in Virginia, unemployment has only risen to 6.7 percent– not full employment, but not the pressing issue that it is elsewhere in the country (in the past year, unemployment in Michigan has risen by 6.4 percentage points)– and, more importantly, it’s even lower in heavily-Democratic Northern Virginia, where turnout would be more of an issue for Deeds.  While it’s tempting to try to put a more interesting– and more nationally-relevant– spin on the race, it’s much easier to make a credible argument that the lack of turnout for Deeds was a function of the fact that people just didn’t like him.  Creigh Deeds’s problem wasn’t Barack Obama’s unpopularity, the problem was Creigh Deeds’s unpopularity.

So, while the author’s other points about the 2010 elections may very well be true, they’re not proven by this particular race.

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