Because I turned 18 in 1999, I had a chance to vote for the first time in the 2000 general election. A life-long Illinois resident, I registered in Wisconsin, where I was attending school. On Election Day 2000 I stood in line with a friend at the Memorial Union at University of Wisconsin-Madison and cast my first ballot. Two years later, in my last year of school, I almost skipped the mid-term elections, but a last-second sense of guilt overcame me and I jumped on my roommate’s scooter, making it to the polls right before closing time.
I’ve since moved to New York City and despite the appeal of filling out an absentee ballot and mailing it to a state that actually matters, I’ve registered in New York. I’ll be voting, of course — politics is my livelihood.
Thus the shock Monday when I took the seven-question test Gallup uses to determine who’s a “likely voter” and who isn’t.
There you have it, a Campaign Desk reporter with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science and a perfect track record in previous elections doesn’t have a history consistent with those who show up on polling day. More to the point, if Gallup were to poll me I would not be included in the likely voter horserace number that often makes headlines in USA Today and on CNN broadcasts.
Every polling outfit has its own unique way of determining likely voters. There are various schools of thought on this issue, but all focus on past voting behavior or self-identified intent to vote. Some think past voting behavior is the best indicator for a likely voter, others think self-identified intent to vote provides the best results, and still others use a combination. Some pollsters, like the American Research Group’s Dick Bennett, think you can determine a likely voter in three questions. Others, like Gallup and Pew Research, think it takes seven questions.
And as the Harris Poll recently showed, different likely voter models can alter the results. On October 20 Harris released its latest round of numbers applying two likely voter models. One model looked for respondents who are registered to vote, who are “absolutely certain” they will vote, who were old enough to vote in 2000, and who did so. That group gave Bush an eight-point lead, 51 percent to 43 percent. But when Harris applied a model that did not factor in whether the respondent had voted in 2000, Bush’s lead shrank to 2 percent, 48 percent to 46 percent.
Gallup uses a seven-question model that is weighted heavily toward past behavior. A reasonable facsimile thereof is available for every political junkie to sample via USAToday.com. (Note: The USA Today reproduction is not entirely accurate and should not be taken at face value.)
So, let’s examine why I am not a likely voter, question by question. Respondents receive one point for each answer that indicates he or she is likely to vote; in order to be considered a likely voter a respondent must score a six or seven.
Question One: How much thought have you given to the upcoming election for president? Quite a lot or only a little?
Thomas Lang: As it’s my job to report on and critique campaign coverage, I answered “quite a lot.”
Question Two: Do you happen to know where people who live in your neighborhood go to vote? Yes or no?
TL: No. I have a sheet of paper sent to me by the New York City Board of Elections confirming that I am registered to vote which I know lists my voting place, but I can’t tell you off the top of my head.
Question Three: Have you ever voted in your precinct or election district? Yes or no?
TL: Nope. I just moved to New York City in January.
Question Four: How often would you say you vote?
TL: I would say always. (Gallup assigns a point for those that answer “always” and “nearly always.”)
Question Five: Do you plan to vote in the presidential election in November?
Question Six: Did you vote in 2000?
Question Seven: If “one” represents someone who definitely will not vote, and “ten” represents someone who definitely will vote, where on this scale would you place yourself?
TL: Ten. (In the past, Gallup assigned points for eight, nine, and ten. More recently Gallup is only assigning points for nine and ten.)