Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Reading Way Too Much Into the Latest Missouri Senate Poll

Despite their feelings about "The Wave," Public Policy Polling has a well-deserved reputation as the most "fan-friendly" pollster around. By this I mean that they have an active and amusing Twitter presence; they're generous and transparent with their data; and they give the people what they want, most recently turning around a Missouri Senate poll only 24 hours after Republican candidate Todd Akin claimed that "legitimate rape" doesn't result in pregnancy. PPP's poll, conducted Monday night, found that Akin remained ahead of incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill 44% to 43%.

Prior to Akin's mega-gaffe, my personal assessment of the race had been that it leaned Republican. After his comments, I commented on Twitter that I believed the race had shifted—to "teeters Republican," reflecting my opinion that the fundamentals in Missouri still favor Republicans but that Akin had brought them precariously close to the brink of defeat. I've since been surprised by the volume, speed, and intensity of the wrath that has come down on Akin, as well as the boldness of predictions from highly credible pundits that the incident would dramatically shift the electoral landscape in McCaskill's favor. In finding a virtually tied race, then, the new PPP poll—while hardly the final word on the matter—was reassuring in the sanity it seemed to restore. Gaffes—short of performing the Nazi salute—don't just erase candidacies overnight.

In their blog post on the most recent poll, PPP rightly points out that Missouri's, and the country's, increased polarization means that even major campaign revelations have a minimal impact on the horse race; voters are simply too dug into their respective sides to budge. (We see that with the remarkably consistent numbers in the presidential race too.) A direct comparison to the last time PPP surveyed a McCaskill/Akin head-to-head reveals almost no change—from Akin 45%, McCaskill 44% to the current Akin 44%, McCaskill 43%.

However, that poll was conducted in late May—before Akin's gaffe, sure, but also before the Republican primary, before the health-care ruling, before a lot of things. So that does leave plenty of room for the possibility that there has been volatility in the meantime—specifically, that Akin built himself a solid lead after May, only to see it evaporate in the past couple days after shooting himself in the foot. While we can never know for sure, a dive into the crosstabs of the two PPP polls provides some clues.

First, what may be most obvious (and what PPP themselves point immediately to) is Akin's favorability rating. Democrats and liberals dislike him and always have—but among McCain voters, his favorability went from 34/10 in May to 40/39 today. In other words, even Republicans who are getting to know this guy aren't liking him. However, they are still voting for him, at a 70/10 clip. This is hyperpartisanship in play and suggests that, while the incident didn't come without an effect, it isn't necessarily translating into people's votes.

To see movement in that arena, a better crosstab to look at is gender; Akin's comments were, after all, consistent with the "war on women" meme. Back in May, Akin didn't suffer from much of a gender gap. Among women, he trailed McCaskill 45% to 43%; among men, he was ahead 46% to 44%. Yet today, unsurprisingly, tells a very different story. If women were the only voters, Akin would currently lose to McCaskill 49% to 39%. However, Akin is up 50% to 36% (!) with men, even after Legitimate-Rape-Gate.

While I have no trouble believing that the cratering support of women is linked to this scandal, it is doubtful that Akin's "legitimate rape" claim actually boosted his support among men. (Interestingly, men were actually more likely to say that those comments were inappropriate and to "strongly disagree" with them, according to the survey—by about 10 percentage points!) Therefore, something else must have changed in the months between polls.

The simplest theory is that, sometime between May and August, Akin's support among men ballooned while his support among women did not—then, this weekend, his support among women took a major hit, resulting in the disparity we see today. Indeed, given the gender splits on the appropriateness of Akin's comments, it's very possible that his already excellent statistics with men were even better before this controversy. If you assume that his support among women had remained split evenly down the middle until the "legitimate rape" incident—a reasonable assumption, given that those stats moved in the "right" direction between polls—that would be enough to have given Akin a sizable overall lead had PPP polled the race just a week or two ago. While they are different polling firms and a direct comparison is impossible, this jibes with the picture of the race painted by Mason-Dixon in late July. That poll found Akin ahead of McCaskill 49% to 44%.

Maybe, then, Akin did take a statistically significant hit from his controversial comments about rape—and if you're a Republican, it has to be worrisome that that's just after one day of fallout. But since we made an assumption that the gaffe accelerated Akin's current gender gap, this may just be an instance of a mathematical identity. What actually seems like a safer conclusion to draw is that, whether Akin has experienced a drop in the past few days or not, he does not have much further to fall. The political crosstabs reveal that Republicans are loath to abandon their candidate, even if they despise him, and that McCaskill can't count on picking up more support there. Meanwhile, the gender crosstabs reveal that virtually every non-Republican woman is already voting against him. Other, traditionally strongly Republican slices of the population will have to start abandoning Akin for his support to fall below its current threshold. Unless McCaskill can start making inroads with men and McCain voters, Akin should continue to be viewed as extremely competitive.

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