protestors using bull horns to shout at each other

Splitting Apart: American Polarization, Part 1

This is part one of a two-part series on polarization in America. This post focuses on Americans' views on, and roles in, polarization. Part two addresses the systemic causes of polarization that result from our ... Read Now >


11/5: On Election Eve…

By Dr. Lee M. Miringoff

When it comes to public opinion polls, this election cycle has had more shoot the messenger reactions than ever before.  There’s little doubt that pollsters are  in season for October and November.

caricature of Lee MiringoffMaybe this results from the growing twitter-sphere. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve had to explain that we don’t weight by party, can’t weight by party, and shouldn’t weight by party.  Party identification is a variable that moves from election to election and from poll to poll.  If you had used the ’04 exit polls as a guide for ’08, McCain would have been elected.

Ironically, I’ve never been asked why we might be undercounting young people or overcounting conservatives.  I guess the criticisms of poll data are motivated by the political cliche: “Where you stand depends upon where you sit.”

Pollsters can adjust data when there are population parameters but not for attitudes.  By way of example, pollsters can weight by age because it is a known number, but not by whether you consider yourself to be young, middle-aged, or old, an attitude.

Then, there’s the issue of pollsters  “cooking the numbers” to create some pre-desired result.  This criticism is often tied to the “weighting by party” argument.”  If you have any worries about pollsters forming a conspiracy, you should attend a professional gathering of number crunchers and watch them try to figure out where to go to lunch.  There isn’t a scientifically based public pollster I’ve ever come across in more than three decades of polling who isn’t motivated exclusively by the desire to be accurate and informative.

Then, there’s the matter of track record.  A couple of facts about The Marist Poll.  In the presidential election of 2008, we polled five of the current battleground states.  We called every one right.  The average difference between our final estimates and the Election Day results was 2%.  And, we underestimated Obama in each case.  We are sufficiently humble enough to understand that you are only as good as your last election cycle.  And, the battleground states this time are very close.

We are firmly committed to transparency, and make all of our numbers available to the public.  Unfortunately, it is our belief in sharing all of our internal numbers that frequently creates the misuse of our polls.  But, we will continue to provide the numbers nonetheless because so many people find them valuable and informative.

Finally, I’ve never been convinced that voters are waiting for the next poll to decide who to support.  It’s really the other way around.  Public polls measure  what voters think based upon what the candidates and their campaigns are doing.

Now, I’ve been asked my take on who will win the battleground states.  The ‘ol perfessor Casey Stengel used to say, “It’s very difficult making predictions, especially about the future.”  Nonetheless, affix your bayonets… Here goes.

Obama has a slight advantage in Ohio and Iowa.  Nevada and Wisconsin are leaning his way.  The remaining swing states: Florida,  Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, and North Carolina are simply too close to call.

If (and, it’s still a big “IF”) you give Obama Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, and Wisconsin, and Romney the remaining five states, then Obama ends up with 277 electoral votes to Romney’s 261.  The assumption here is that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota all remain blue states (another “IF,” even if not as big).  We have not polled these states.

Also, recognize these states are all within single digits and most are within the margin of error.  Late movement among undecided voters and get out the vote efforts can still have a big impact on all the contested states.  Why?  Because it’s very close!

Have a good Election Day.  My thanks and gratitude to the more than 100,000 voters who have taken their time to share their views with us this election year.

11/5: A Nod to Democracy

By Barbara Carvalho

With all the political spin, polarization, and cynicism that accompanies much of the chatter about Campaign 2012, it’s easy to lose sight of what Election Day represents.  At the Marist Poll at Marist College, the election season (which seems to get longer and longer) is a time to engage our students and provide a “laboratory” to understand democracy in action.

Since last fall, more than 500 Marist College undergraduates spoke first hand to voters across the country about their views on the presidential election, the economy, foreign policy and important issues and events of the day.  As part of our partnership with NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, these students also got to focus their efforts on first, the opinions of voters in Republican primary states and, then, voters in nine critical battleground states.

In collaboration with the McClatchy News Service, we spoke to Americans about their hopes, concerns, and solutions for solving many problems facing the country.  We found a consensus of values and a multiplicity of solutions.  But, more importantly, agreement that compromise was needed and attainable.

All told, over 100,000 people across the nation took the time, one by one, to share their experiences, opinions, and intentions.  We are grateful.  Although polls are often characterized as villainess inanimate objects for political spin, we and our students know and have a connection with the spirited and very real individuals from all walks of life who participated in sharing their thoughts.

We also value transparency.  The Marist Poll team worked tirelessly to make sure all the survey information, toplines, internals, and methods were detailed and accessible.  If we missed something, survey questions were answered and information provided.  But, with transparency comes responsibility.  A warning to those who choose to use transparency to distort:  a knowledgeable public will not tolerate such mischaracterizations for long.  We will continue to explain, inform, and hopefully enlighten.

So, thank you to all who participated in this statistical chronicle of Campaign 2012.  Regardless of whether or not your candidate won, we hope you will continue to be energized to speak your opinions and make your voice heard.  To quote President Lincoln, “Public sentiment is everything.  With public sentiment, nothing can fail.  Without it, nothing can succeed.”  That’s how democracy works!

11/1 Undecided Voters in the 2012 Presidential Election

In Presidential elections some people will always vote for the Democrat and some will always vote for the Republican.  But, there’s that group of people in the middle who make up their mind as the campaign moves toward Election Day that often decides who wins.  The exact proportion of undecided voters varies from campaign to campaign—sometimes voters have a more difficult time deciding who to vote for and as much as 10 to 15% of likely voters are undecided.  But in some years, like 2012, voters pick sides early and there are few undecided voters left by Labor Day, the start of the fall campaign.  This election season, polls have consistently shown few undecided likely voters.  So, who are these people? How much do they matter? If they do vote, in whose direction will they break?

Natalie Jackson


In order to look at these questions, the data from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist battleground state polls of Florida, Virginia, and Ohio were combined.  This dataset comprises three polls from each state in September and October, two before the debates started and one after, for a total of 9 polls. The combined samples include 11,510 registered voters, of which 1,168–approximately 10%–indicated that they were unsure of their vote preference.  About 40% of these respondents chose a side in the follow-up question that asked if they were leaning toward a candidate, but the majority said they were still not sure.

Will the undecideds vote? Perhaps, the single biggest question is whether these people will vote.  The answer could hold the key to who wins the election. Undoubtedly, some will stay home. However, of the 1,168 undecided voters in the polls, 61% of them are classified as likely voters.  The Marist Poll likely voter model takes into account chance of vote, interest in the election, past voting behavior, and turnout expectations.  These undecided voters likely to cast a ballot will probably make a decision at some point, or even at the last minute, and vote.  They account for 8% of all likely voters in nine battleground states and could make a difference in the race.[1]  In this close race, that is a substantial voting bloc.

Beyond the likely voter classification, there are other factors that point to a substantial number of undecided voters actually casting a ballot.  Perhaps, most strikingly, is that 92% of undecided likely voters report having participated in past presidential elections, and 90% say their chance of voting this year is either excellent or good.  Sixty-two percent of undecided likely voters also say they are very or somewhat enthusiastic about voting.  Over two-thirds—70%– indicate they are very interested in the campaign.  These numbers suggest undecided likely voters are not apathetic, uninformed or uninterested.  They are genuinely interested in voting—they simply have not decided who to vote for yet.

Who are these undecided voters?  This group of voters is not demographically exceptional.   Fifty-four percent are women, 52% are married, and 39% are college graduates. Thirteen percent are between the ages of 18 and 29, 26% are between ages 30 and 44, 29% are in the 45-49 age range, and just about a third are over 60.  Seventy-six percent identify as white, 10% are African American, and 9% are Latino.

Politically, most of these people are often not committed to a party or ideology.  Twenty-two percent identify as Democrats, compared to 15% that identify as Republicans.  The largest group, 61%, identify as independents. The same pattern is evident with ideology: 33% are either conservative or very conservative, compared with only 15% who are liberal or very liberal, and the remaining 52% are moderates.  Thirteen percent say they support the Tea Party.

Why are they undecided?  If these people are engaged, enthusiastic, or, most importantly, likely to vote, why have they not made a decision yet? It is often assumed people who have not decided who to vote for are not paying attention or do not care.  The data offer some insights.  Of the 92% of current undecided likely voters who voted in the previous presidential election, 59% of them recall voting for President Obama, while only 32% recall voting for Senator McCain.  The remainder either thinks they voted for another candidate or cannot recall.  But, they divide about Obama’s job approval.  Thirty-six percent approve of the job he is doing as President and 36% disapprove.  The remaining 28% are unsure.  Additionally, 53% think the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and only 33% say it is headed in the right one.

Altogether, these results indicate that most of these undecided likely voters are conservatives or moderates, who are dissatisfied with Obama’s presidency and the state of the nation.  But, these individuals are not fond of Romney either.  Romney’s favorability rating is upside-down among this group. Only 31% give him a favorable rating and 42% rate him unfavorably.  Even among Republicans in this undecided likely voter group, Romney has only a 39% favorability rating and a 32% unfavorable one.

Who will they vote for?  As noted, about 40% of undecided voters provided an answer when asked if they lean toward one candidate or another.  Although the majority of undecided likely voters still say they do not know, 25% state they lean toward Obama, and 15% lean toward Romney.  A handful of undecided partisans lean toward the candidate across the aisle: 7% of undecided Democrats lean toward the Republican ticket, and 12% of undecided Republicans lean toward the Democratic ticket.    Interestingly, 16% of those who identify as Tea Party supporters lean toward Obama, and 26% lean toward Romney.  The favorability ratings advantage Obama.  Among undecided likely voters, Obama nets a plus 15 points compared with Romney’s net 11 points in a negative direction.  Still, 58% remain undecided even when asked if they are leaning toward a candidate.  For them, it is anyone’s guess.

As we approach the final few days of the campaigns, the proportion of undecided likely voters has continued to shrink.  Some might have already voted and made their decision, but many of these individuals will not choose until they get into the voting booth on Election Day—if they choose to vote.  The numbers indicate that a good proportion of undecided registered voters are likely to vote.  The campaigns have many competing goals and issues to address, but one of the most crucial remains attracting undecided voters, even in a year in which there are few undecideds left. The close race means these few undecided voters could make the difference.


[1] The Marist Poll releases tables which show a smaller percentage of undecided registered and likely voters.  These tables do not categorize undecided voters who are leaning toward a candidate as undecided but instead include them within the candidate’s numbers.  For this analysis, undecided voters include voters who may be leaning toward a candidate.

8/29: Getting a Bounce?

By Dr. Lee M. Miringoff

The GOP convention is (finally) off and running followed next week by the Democratic gathering.  With Obama and Romney closely matched at the start of these two quadrennial events, as they have been since Romney emerged as the presumptive GOP nominee, what should we expect poll number-wise once the final gavel goes down in Charlotte?

caricature of Lee MiringoffPost-convention bounces are often dissected for any hint that the character of the contest has changed.  Yet, typically 5% has been about all a candidate can count on, and that advantage often quickly dissipates.

Don’t be surprised this go-around if the Romney and Obama bounces are even smaller.  Simply put, there’s far fewer persuadable voters to reach.  The “undecided” and “”those who might vote differently” groups now are about half the size of recent election cycles.

Part of the explanation has to do with the relative lateness of these conventions.  The summer is practically over.  Part of the explanation resides in the polarization that divides the electorate.  Most voters have already picked sides.  Part of the explanation is the result of limited network coverage for these increasingly staged events.

Nonetheless, the two conventions are important for Romney and Obama.  Romney has to solve his likeability problem.  Obama has to address why any shortcomings of his first term are likely to vanish if he is re-elected.  And, both camps are keen on rallying their respective bases.  Enthusiasm doesn’t show up in tossup numbers or poll bounces, but it is likely to determine who takes the oath of office in January.

8/29: What About the Economy?

By Barbara Carvalho

Whatever happened to this election being about the economy and only the economy? Well, the summer months ushered in a slew of back and forth arguments between the Obama and Romney campaigns which had little to do with what Romney hoped would be a referendum on President Obama and the stalled economic recovery.

Instead of staying on his jobs message, we’ve witnessed a Romney campaign having to handle Supreme Court decisions on immigration and health care, his role with Bain Capital, outsourcing, Swiss bank accounts, the reluctance to release his income tax returns, a gaffe-filled trip to Europe, and recently, candidate Akin’s misguided comments on abortion and rape.  Even the GOP convention has been delayed by the threat of Hurricane Isaac.

This week will be Romney’s best chance to reintroduce himself to the American electorate and, along with Congressman Ryan, re-direct the discussion back to jobs.  Next week will be President Obama’s chance to provide a clear rationale for his re-election.

And then, next Friday, mere hours following Obama’s acceptance speech, the government will issue the latest jobs numbers.  If the picture remains as unattractive as the last few months have shown, expect the Romney-Ryan team to pounce on the figures and take the offense.  So far, that hasn’t come easy for them, but they would be well advantaged to fill the weeks between the conventions and the debates with as much discussion  about the economy as they can.

7/11: But Wait, There’s More

By Dr. Lee M. Miringoff

Are you in search of the definitive narrative for decision ’12?  Each time something BIG happens…an Obama or a Romney gaffe, the SCOTUS ruling on immigration or health care, the latest jobs numbers etc… the pundit and polling communities pounce on it as the storyline for the election.

caricature of Lee MiringoffWell, chattering class, be patient.  It is true the candidates are already in high gear and the ad makers are regularly launching their missiles, but national polls and battleground state polls continue to show the race to be close.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Certainly, there’s much to be learned along the way from the political insights of experts about campaign strategies and  public polls about how voters are absorbing what is being offered to them.

But, the conventions, the debates, the October economy, unforeseen international events, and (perhaps, most significantly) the ability of the campaigns to turn out their supporters will ultimately connect the dots that form the picture of the Obama re-election effort and the Romney challenge.

7/11: Shaping Public Opinion

By Barbara Carvalho

With recent public polls showing many Americans unaware of the SCOTUS health care decision, it gives pause for thought.  How much attention  does the public really pay to news coverage of issues thought to shape Decision ’12?

Let’s take a different example.  Aside from the partisan spin that accompanied the latest 8.2% Labor Department offering, is this figure what Americans rely on to determine if the economy is on the mend, stalled, or deteriorating, or is there something else that’s working on the American psyche?

For arguments sake, let’s put the unemployment numbers on hold.  Do people base their economic assessments more on their own financial circumstances? Are they having difficulty making ends meet? Are they worried about paying their mortgage? Or, is it a chat with friends or neighbors that shapes their views?

There are many factors that shape public opinion. Debate which follows news of each D.C. stat must go hand in hand with more personal indicators to paint a comprehensive picture of public opinion.  This will help us understand Americans’ pessimism about current economic circumstances yet growing optimism that the worst may be over.

6/27: From the Survey to the Trail

By Dr. Lee M. Miringoff

Sure. Early public polls both national and state are open to the charge of not being predictive.  National polls carry the added burden of not necessarily reflecting the electoral college state-by-state vote.caricature of Lee Miringoff

Now, if you don’t want to be a public poll-tracker but are interested in the ups and downs of the campaign, there’s an easy way out.  Just follow where Obama, Romney, and their surrogates are campaigning (not raising money).  That’ll provide you with a short-hand map of the battleground states and who is fighting on whose turf.

However, if you want to gain insight beyond the horse race, you don’t have to drill down too far in the public poll numbers.   These electoral snapshots not only provide a sense of why Obama and Romney are doing what they do and where, but an insider’s appreciation of the dynamics shaping voters’ views about campaign ’12.

First, public polls let the public in on the secret of what the candidates and frequently the media know, often based on campaign polls about the latest trends.  If you’re interested, check out yesterday’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll or tomorrow’s NBC News/Marist Poll of three battleground states: North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Michigan.  The results will be detailed on Chuck Todd’s The Daily Rundown beginning at 9:00 A.M. on MSNBC.

The poll numbers reveal the unique flavor of the 2012 electorate over who’s better suited to lead the economy, to what extent voters think Obama inherited the economic mess, an argument he often makes, and what voters think about the direction of the nation, a topic Romney is happy to discuss.

When checking out the numbers in individual battleground states, beyond the tossups, what is Obama’s approval rating? who is more likeable? How committed are each candidate’s supporters? What is the likelihood they will vote? How interested are they in the campaign? How enthusiastic are they?

Drill down a bit more to find out how wide the gender gap is in this election cycle.  Is the youth vote, critical to Obama’s 2008 victory, in line for him this time?

So, stay connected to the public polls whether your candidate is ahead or behind.  I think you will find them to be interesting and valuable.  If not, label the poll “an outlier” and wait for numbers you like better.

6/27: The Double-Edged Sword of Technology

It can unite us, help us with mundane tasks, and entertain us.  Technology is wonderful.  That is, when it’s used appropriately.

The abuse of technology is widespread.  Perhaps, the most recent, shocking incident occurred last week when four middle school students taunted Greece, New York School Bus Monitor Karen Klein.  As if the boys’ behavior wasn’t abhorrent enough, one of them actually posted the video on YouTube under the title, “Making the Bus Monitor Cry.”  Of course, the video went viral and prompted an outcry of support for Klein, including a collection to send Klein on a dream vacation.  (As of this writing, the sum totals more than $650,000 and counting.)

As if their bullying wasn’t bad enough, the boys’ actions resulted in death threats directed toward their families which, in turn, cost taxpayer dollars to address those threats.

For a moment, let’s just focus on their use of technology.  Did they really not get it?  Did they really not understand that the very same technology that allows them to interact with their friends has the power to illuminate their bad behavior?

Children are taught from a very young age that actions have consequences.  If they touch a hot stove, they will burn their hand.  If they talk back to their parents, they will be reprimanded.  So, what makes technology, specifically social media, different?  For starters, perhaps, it has to do with the nature of the technology, itself.  Because electronic media removes the need to physically be in the same space as the communication itself, people can detach from their every day persona and become more brazen.  In fact, this pre-dates social media.  (Think back to the early days of email and chat rooms.)  Unfortunately, the tendency still exists. (Think not so far back to the Anthony Weiner scandal.)

But, that still doesn’t solve the problem at hand.  Why can’t many young people grasp that the use of social media isn’t all fun and games?  Perhaps, that’s part of the answer.  Because these kids have grown up with social media, they have mostly been exposed to the “good” side of it.  Let’s face it, when it comes to sensitive issues, many parents aren’t eager to have a heart to heart with their kid.

Perhaps, as part of their education, students should be required from a young age to participate in forums with those who have been victims of online bullying.  For those who believe it’s not the role of the schools to play parent, tools should be available for parents to teach their children the downside of social media.

Simply put, America’s youth needs to be educated and guided about the nature of technology.


6/7: Enough with the Labels

The Senate’s failure to pass the “Paycheck Equality Act” has been perceived by some as the latest political affront by Democrats to accuse Republicans of waging a war on women. Whether a mother, sister, aunt, or daughter, you can’t have a family without a woman.  And, yet, the Republicans, the party of the family, accuse the Democrats of destroying the family by their stance on social issues.  Is it me, or is there just a slight hint of hypocrisy emanating from both sides?

Every political season has its fair share of rhetoric, but even early on, 2012’s combative flames are reaching new heights.  And, so, here is an appeal.  Let’s leave the name calling out on the nation’s playgrounds and get serious.  Unemployment is at 8.2%, and the national debt has reached an astronomical level.  It’s time for adult dialogue.  Our nation’s future depends on it.