Getting Down To the Lick-Log

If you wonder why I spend so much time (as compared, at least, to other bloggers) shooting down the more asinine “wave” and “enthusiasm gap” theories about this and other elections, it’s in no small part because I believe most of the factors that determine most electoral contests will be discoverable by competent public opinion research before the deal goes down. Yes, there will be too-close-to-call races; no poll is perfect; there’s a reasonably wide range of competence levels among pollsters, and sometimes no way to predict who’s going to be off in which cycle.

In any event, we’re getting to the point in the cycle where “likely voter” polls are beginning to replace or at least supplement registered-voter (or “all adults”) polls. Different pollsters have different likely voter “screens,” all defensible, none infallible. But the key thing to realize is that LV polls should reflect all the subjective reasoning for voting or non-voting people love to talk about as “enthusiasm” or even “excitement.” So when you see an LV poll, you might want to be sure to take the mental thumb off the scales for the party you assume has the mythical “momentum.”

I mention this in the context of a new Marquette Law School survey showing Democrat Mary Burke leading Gov. Scott Walker 48.6% to 46.5% among likely November voters. Walker has a 3.4% lead among registered voters, which would probably indicate that in this one state Democrats may enjoy an “enthusiasm” advantage.

It should be noted that Marquette’s likely voter screen is based on whether respondents say they are relatively “certain” they will be voting in November. I personally think that’s more defensible than those who measure likelihood to vote by past voting behavior or by how “excited” they are about voting this year. But however you feel about that, it’s indisputable that a highly reputable pollster with a likely voter screen is showing Walker in serious trouble. The assumption a lot of observers have that polls consistently understate Republican performance because they don’t factor in “enthusiasm” is simply irrational in this case. Walker could still win, of course, but there’s zero reason to think he’ll be saved by a “wave” or some other ghostly phenomenon that cannot be refuted because it cannot be demonstrated, either.

We’re finally getting down to the lick-log of the midterm cycle, and it’s time to dispense with blue-skying and pre-spinning by either party.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.