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Polls Don't Reflect GOP's Real Chance of Taking Senate

Under-sampling.

8:25 AM, Oct 28, 2010 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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The polls, however, are generally forecasting very different turnouts than this. For example, the approach explained herein would project that the Democrats would enjoy a 5-point advantage in turnout in California, very close to the Democrats’ advantage in turnout in the Golden State in 2004 (7 points), as measured by exit polls conducted that year. And it would project that 33 percent of California’s voters this time around would be independents. 

Meanwhile, among the four polls listed by Real Clear Politics from the past week that show their projected party breakdowns for California, the average projected turnout advantage for the Democrats is 11 points—almost identical to the 12-point advantage that the Democrats enjoyed in 2008, the best Democratic election in recent memory. And on average these polls project that just 22 percent of the California turnout will be made up of independents — well below the 2008 figure of 29 percent and even the 2004 figure of 27 percent.

Such examples abound. In Colorado, the most recent polls suggest that the Democrats will enjoy a 1-point advantage in turnout, just like in 2008.  And these polls say that only 29 percent of Colorado voters this time around will be independents, even though 39 percent of Colorado voters were independents in 2008, and even though that percentage, by all accounts, is growing.

The expectation that Democrats will come anywhere close to matching their 2008 turnout, while independent turnout will suffer, is not rooted in reality. In truth, turnout should look very much like it did in 2004, except that independents will make up a higher percentage of the voters. 

Fortunately, many of the polls show each candidate’s level of support by party.  So we can see, for example, that the latest CNN/Time poll for Colorado shows Republican challenger Ken Buck with 89 percent support among Republicans, to 6 percent for Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet; 6 percent support among Democrats, to Bennet’s 90; and 49 percent support among independents, to Bennet’s 36.  Using the projected turnout figures explained herein (and more or less mirroring 2004), these tallies would mean an 11-point lead for Buck. Because of its radically different turnout projections, CNN/Time calls it a 1-point lead for Buck.

On the whole — using every poll from the past ten days that breaks down support by party (and in Washington, Florida, Delaware, and Wisconsin, where such polls are more scarce, going back a bit further) — here are the tallies that these polls would yield if they were to use the turnout projections outlined herein (with the actual RCP averages for each state listed alongside):

—California: Boxer (D) by 1 (RCP average: Boxer by 6)

—Colorado: Buck (R) by 8 (RCP: Buck by 2)

—Connecticut: Blumenthal (D) by 12.5 (RCP: Blumenthal by 12.5)

—Delaware: Coons (D) by 16 (RCP: Coons by 17)

—Florida: Rubio (R) by 10, over Crist) (RCP: Rubio by 12, over Crist)

—Kentucky: Paul (R) by 12 (RCP: Paul by 8)

—Illinois: Kirk (R) by 4 (RCP: Kirk by 3)

—Nevada: Angle (R) by 3.5 (RCP: Angle by 2)

—Pennsylvania: Toomey (R) by 5 (RCP: Toomey by 3)

—Washington: Rossi (R) by 1 (RCP: Murray (D) by 2)

—West Virginia: Manchin (D) by 1.5 (RCP: Manchin by 5)

—Wisconsin: Johnson (R) by 10 (RCP: Johnson by 6)

In all but Florida and Connecticut, the polls appear to be inflating the Democratic candidates’ prospects by inflating Democratic turnout. 

In all likelihood, however, Republican candidates have a shot of doing slightly better on the whole than even the above tallies suggest, for the turnout projections that inform these tallies really only take into account party identification, not party enthusiasm.  And party enthusiasm certainly seems to favor the GOP.  In this year’s primaries, according to American University researcher Curtis Gans, Republican turnout outnumbered Democratic turnout for the first time in 80 years. 

On the whole, Republicans look like they have a reasonably good chance to maintain their advantage in the races where they’re leading by at least three or four points in the tallies above, which means they would need to take two out of three among West Virginia, Washington, and California — all nearly toss-ups — to become the majority party in the Senate. 

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