What’s wrong with Alaska? What’s The Real Source Of Poll Inaccuracy?

Princeton’s Sam Wang explains:

On Tuesday, I suggested that control of the Senate could come down to as few as four key races in Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, and Arkansas. There’s a fifth state where voters are exceptionally powerful: Alaska, because of the closeness of the race and its small population. But even though get-out-the-vote efforts in Alaska are certain to be valuable, activists will have to do their work without a clear picture of which candidate is ahead, Democrat Mark Begich or Republican Dan Sullivan.

As you can see, the Meta-Margin moved toward Republicans today. This is caused by two recent polls in Alaska. This race has had only seven surveys since Sullivan clinched the nomination in August. I think we may continue to see fluctuation in Alaska surveys in the coming weeks. Today I want to point out some special characteristics of Alaska that complicate any exercise in poll aggregation: its small population and extreme mobility in and out of the state. The bottom line is the possibility of polling error like what happened in the Nevada 2010 Senate race…though in the opposite direction.

Fewer than 500,000 people are registered to vote in Alaska as of this year. Senate polls for the general election and the Republican primary election were based on approximately 15,000 responses. It has been estimated that fewer than 10 percent of people who are called in a political opinion survey actually pick up the phone and complete the survey. Most pollsters predominantly use telephones to reach respondents, so over this campaign season they have dialed up at least 150,000 people – nearly 1 in 3 Alaska voters, which is an amazingly high fraction. As Edward Freeland, director of Princeton’s Survey Research Center, put it to me, “you can crank up polling machinery that works so well in most cases, but in Alaska you start reaching limits that don’t occur elsewhere.”

However, I think a source of even worse trouble for polling state is the fact that many of Alaska’s voters are relatively recent arrivals. Sullivan himself moved to Alaska in 1997 and has only lived in the state for eight of the last seventeen years, mainly as a government official. (Begich has highlighted the difference by running a campaign called “True Alaska.”) But Sullivan is hardly alone. Out of a total of approximately 730,000 residents in Alaska, over 340,000 arrived between 2000 and 2011. Over 320,000 people left the state during that same period.

In other words, in any given year, approximately 10% of Alaska’s population has just arrived or is about to move away. This is reminiscent of Nevada, which has very similar statistics. Nevada is also the site of a spectacularly wrong polling error. In fall of 2010, surveys unanimously showed Republican Sharron Angle favored to unseat Democratic Senator (and Majority Leader) Harry Reid, by a median of four percentage points. Every data-based prognosticator, including me, expected Angle to win. Yet Reid won the election by 5 points, outperforming polls by 9 points. I regard this as the worst miss of Senate polling in the last three election cycles.

What can the Nevada case tell us about possible polling errors in Alaska? In Nevada, underpolled populations probably included several groups that tilt Democratic, including cell-phone-only users and Hispanics, as well as itinerant workers in Nevada-specific industries. Similarly, there are groups of Alaskans, given its unusual geography and demographics, who are likely to be underrepresented in polls because they are mobile: Alaska has substantial populations of seasonal and short-term workers such as oil-industry workers and fishermen. 49 percent of Alaskans use cell phones exclusively or predominantly. Across the U.S., nearly 10 percent of cell phone users bear an area code that does not match their current home state, and in Alaska the percentage is likely to be considerably higher. These voters would not be identifiable as Alaskans by telephone-based surveys, whether landline or cell phone-based.

A recent analysis by FiveThirtyEight has suggested that in Alaska, Republicans tend to outperform opinion polls on Election Day, and offered as the explanation the fact that partisan polling can distort polling averages. However, I don’t think that explanation entirely holds water, for the simple reason that it does not account for why Alaska would be different from other states. Partisan polls are everywhere.

Based on the extreme mobility of Alaska residents, I suggest a problem of potentially far larger impact. Like Nevada, telephone-based surveys in both states simply fail to capture a sample that is fully representative of voters. In other words, I suggest that ideologically diverse states with lots of recent arrivals are subject to inaccuracy.

Pollsters could get around the mobile-voter problem by reaching out through the Internet; Alaska has one of the highest rates of Internet access in the United States. Of polls conducted since the GOP primary in August, two organizations used Internet-based sampling, YouGov (entirely online, Sullivan +6%) and Public Policy Polling (20% online respondents, Sullivan +2%). Recent polls using telephone-only sampling have been done by Hays Research (Begich +5%), Harstad (Begich +5%), and Rasmussen (Sullivan +5%). The average difference is that phone-only surveys are 5.7% better for Begich. This is a little hard to interpret because there is also the partisan-pollster issue. However, it is nearly the same size as the 5-point bias that FiveThirtyEight highlighted. Internet-based sampling is a growing technology in polling, and has attracted somecontroversy. But if we believe that use of the Internet helps reach otherwise-inaccessible voters, Sullivan is in better standing than a simple median would suggest.

The PEC calculation is polls-only without adjustments, and I can’t really change the calculation on an ad hoc basis – it defeats the purpose of having a clean snapshot. At the moment, since the median shows a small Begich lead, the effect of assuming that Sullivan is ahead in Alaska would be to shift today’s Senate Meta-Margin from D+0.6% to D+0.2%, basically a perfect toss-up. If another pro-Sullivan poll shows up, the Meta-Margin will fully reflect a Sullivan lead, and this difference will disappear.

Alaska voters have exceptional power, on a per-vote basis, to influence Senate control. Over in The Power Of Your Vote, at right, I have calculated that in terms of influencing the overall probability of Senate control by either party, individual Alaska voters have a tremendous amount of power. Alaskans might want to ready themselves for a new type of incoming demographic: Republican and Democratic campaign workers.

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