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October 21, 2004

Incumbent Rule: A Caution and a Plea

As many of you may have discovered the "incumbent rule" (and this site) through yesterday's post on Ohio, I want to add one important point: But be careful not to make the same mistake some made back in August and assume that the current snapshot of preferences will remain fixed over the next 12 days. True, the number of movable voters is very small and getting smaller every day, but it is still possible for Bush's numbers to change. Forty-seven percent (47%) of the vote certainly signals trouble, but at that level Bush needs to pick up only a few points (or have the polls be off by only a few points) to win. That is why pollsters continue to interview voters through the final weekend. The main point of my post yesterday is not that Bush's percentage of the vote is now "capped," but that Bush's number is the one to watch.

Some will argue that the incumbent rule is moot in times of war or in the post 9/11 era. I am dubious, but it is worth noting that he incumbent rule did not seem to apply to a handful of races in 2002: The actual share of the vote received by incumbent Governors Jeb Bush (FL), George Pataki (NY) and Grey Davis (CA) was 4-5 percentage points higher than what each received on the average of final polls taken the last week of the campaign. Senate incumbents Wayne Allard (CO) and Jean Carnahan (MO) similarly outperformed their final polls (data from the subscriber pages of The Polling Report and this scorecard from Survey USA).

I discount these anomalies for several reasons. First, the historical data and theoretical underpinnings of the incumbent rule are far stronger for presidential races. Second, 2002 was an odd off-year election in a lot of respects, including heavier than usual Republican turnout in many areas and a much different political environment with respect to terrorism and national security.
http://www.mydd.com/story/2004/9/3/22294/96534

Finally, I have seen scattered attempts by pollsters this year to roll up undecided voters from multiple surveys to get a large enough sample size for analysis. Each time the data show overwhelmingly negative views of President Bush's job performance (here and more recently, here). Now, four or more survey organizations are conducting ongoing rolling average tracking surveys that reach as many as 80-100 truly undecided likely voters each week. It certainly would be helpful to see the Bush job performance and Bush and Kerry favorable ratings among several weeks worth of undecided voters, especially if we can compare the small samples of several different organizations. Any polling directors listening out there?

Related Entries - Incumbent Rule, Interpreting Polls

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on October 21, 2004 at 12:57 AM in Incumbent Rule, Interpreting Polls | Permalink

Comments

There is another reason to discount the incumbent rule in the Jeb Bush governor’s race of 2002: His opponent was terrible. My wife and I watched the debates, looked at each other and decided there was no way we could vote for the democrat. I have no idea what the democrat’s internals were (I don’t even remember his name) but I am guessing they were pretty bad.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 21, 2004 11:25:00 AM

On the other hand, Democratic incumbent Governor Roy Barnes significantly underperformed his final poll numbers in 2002. I believe that Max Cleland did as well, but not as dramatically.

Posted by: emcee fleshy (D-Atlanta) | Oct 21, 2004 11:32:28 AM

Mark,

You say "2002 was an odd off-year election in a lot of respects, including heavier than usual Republican turnout in many areas and a much different political environment with respect to terrorism and national security."

Perhaps. But what you DON'T say is why you think 2004 will be more like pre-2002 than like 2002. Why won't the heavy GOP turnout of 2002 be replicated this year? Is the terrorism/national security environment significantly different this year as compared to 2002?

You simply don't present a very convincing argument on this point.

Posted by: Al | Oct 21, 2004 11:34:08 AM

Comparing the Bush to Gray Davis is a reach at best. Gray Davis was loathed by voters of both parties, not just the opposing party. Democrats in their frothing anger may see it being comparable but it objectively is not. And to boot, Kerry is no Arnold Schwarzenegger! Schwarzenagger came into the election on a wave of popular enthusiasm as a candidate. Kerry has no such wave, he is merely the designated ABB (Anybody But Bush) candidate. Kerry is in fact the Cruz Bustamante of the Presidential race. Riding a wave of special interest money and status quo Democratic power preservation, Bustamante as candidate was loaded with gaffes and devoid of solutions. Sound familiar?

Posted by: SiliconValleyGuy | Oct 21, 2004 12:03:53 PM

Mark:

If Davis (a Democrat) did better in the 2002 California Gubenatorial race, as an incumbent, than the public approval polls indicated, when you indicate the 2002 turnout skewed Republican, how exactly does that not disprove the incumbent rule? For the record, I live in California, and I seem to recall his approval rating was below THIRTY percent in some polls (he won w/ 47%, if I'm not mistaken).

Posted by: Sean | Oct 21, 2004 12:21:26 PM

http://www.dalythoughts.com/Update-05-26-04.htm

He argues that, in fact, there has been on real consistent "incumbent effect" in US Presidential races, looking at Presidential races going back to 1936.

So, what is the countervailing evidence in Presidential races?

Posted by: Greg D | Oct 21, 2004 5:54:17 PM

My own feeling on the subject is that a lot of those "undecideds" don't want to vote for Bush, but need Kerry to prove to them that he's worthy of their vote.

If he hasn't done that by Oct 20 (let alone by Oct 30), what makes you think he's going to do that by 11/2?

Posted by: Greg D | Oct 21, 2004 5:57:11 PM

In the 2002 CA governor's race, Gray Davis ran against Bill Simon, a very conservative Republican, who Davis suporters had helped choose (by running ads against ex-L.A. mayor Riordan, a popular moderate, during Republican primary race). Davis couldn't get a majority against Simon, because, as my brother said, "neither of them was worth a trip to the polls." This may be the case this year, but I am voting for Kerry & hoping for a Republican congress.
(Oh, and Janet Reno was Jeb Bush's "terrible" 2002 opponent. That she was, and the memory of Elian Gonzalez being snatched at gunpoint cinched her defeat.)

Posted by: Bill A. | Oct 21, 2004 6:45:00 PM

I think the Gray Davis parallel is well taken. Like the 2002 California race, this Presidential cycle features an increasingly unpopular incumbent against a challenger characterized as being outside the political mainstream. Bush and Davis are both ruthless and under-rated campaigners. Really, the reversal of parties is the only noteworthy difference.

'04 is vastly different than '02 on a national level. The key difference are the 'Right-Track/Wrong Track' numbers. Post-9/11, most Americans were not very eager for partisan battles and keen on national unity. That is a very pro-incumbent moment that is in the past. The polling suggests that a growing majority would like to change SOMETHING in the next election cycle.

By far the easiest thing to change is the President.

Posted by: Dean H | Oct 21, 2004 8:00:24 PM

I think the Gray Davis parallel is well taken. Like the 2002 California race, this Presidential cycle features an increasingly unpopular incumbent against a challenger characterized as being outside the political mainstream. Bush and Davis are both ruthless and under-rated campaigners. Really, the reversal of parties is the only noteworthy difference.

'04 is vastly different than '02 on a national level. The key difference are the 'Right-Track/Wrong Track' numbers. Post-9/11, most Americans were not very eager for partisan battles and keen on national unity. That is a very pro-incumbent moment that is in the past. The polling suggests that a growing majority would like to change SOMETHING in the next election cycle.

By far the easiest thing to change is the President.

Posted by: Dean H | Oct 21, 2004 8:00:47 PM

I think the Gray Davis parallel is well taken. Like the 2002 California race, this Presidential cycle features an increasingly unpopular incumbent against a challenger characterized as being outside the political mainstream. Bush and Davis are both ruthless and under-rated campaigners. Really, the reversal of parties is the only noteworthy difference.

'04 is vastly different than '02 on a national level. The key difference are the 'Right-Track/Wrong Track' numbers. Post-9/11, most Americans were not very eager for partisan battles and keen on national unity. That is a very pro-incumbent moment that is in the past. The polling suggests that a growing majority would like to change SOMETHING in the next election cycle.

By far the easiest thing to change is the President.

Posted by: Dean H | Oct 21, 2004 8:01:47 PM

http://www.dalythoughts.com/Update-05-26-04.htm

1: The link argues that there has not been a consistent "undecideds break for the challenger" pattern in US Presidential races. Sorry I stated that so poorly above.

2: You said 2002 was "a Republican year", but pointed out two races where the late breaking votes broke for the Democrat incumbent (Carnahanve and Allard).

3: Re: Florida 2002. All those Reno problems should have showed up in polls not just among "late breakers", Bill. You need to provide a reason why they'd only show up among the late breakers if you don't want that election to be an argument against the "incumbent effect".

4: Dean: I fail to see how any of what you say connects the CA 200 Gov. race to the 2004 Pres race.

Esp, I don't see why late breakers would be more eager to "change something" than everyone else. I'd expect those who are really eager for a change to have already picked Kerry.

Posted by: Greg D | Oct 22, 2004 1:42:40 AM

I'm somewhat skeptical of the incumbent rule but I can be convinced. Approval ratings for Bush are very low right now in every poll. Right track/wrong track numbers are terrible for Bush. But if voters aren't breaking for Kerry now are they afraid of changing horses in mid-Apocolypse? The answer is turnout. This is precisely the strategy of Bush right now - drive up the Republican base and try to discourage voters from voting Kerry by focusing on terrorism alone. I don't think Bush really imagines all these undecideds voting Bush. He just wants them to stay home. If turnout is high Kerry will win by a large margin, especially if the new registrations are to be believed. If turnout is low the disciplined Republian base will give Bush another term. And there is absolutely no reliable way to determine turnout at this point other than the number of new registrations and the massive money in GOTV by 527s and the parties.

Posted by: elrod | Oct 22, 2004 9:48:29 AM

Greg:

I've seen that link posted many times recently by conservative bloggers trying to debunk "the incumbent rule." But it doesn't debunk it; it just brings in a bunch of irrelevant polling factoids to cloud the historical picture. The examples from '52, '60, '68, '88 and 2000 are utterly pointless, as the rule has been more or less exclusively applied to re-election races, not open seats; campaigns with sitting VPs have been far more fluid. And in every "incumbent rule" analysis I've seen, the polling figures cited were from *just* before the election, not a month out or "the next to last poll". A good example (that buttresses the rule argument) is 1976. Ford may have improved his showing on Election Day from the "next to last poll" but he was actually winning (by a point) in the final pre-election Gallup - which suggests that Carter's two-point victory came from undecideds.

Here's a good source: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/preferences.php

You'll see that Truman is the *only* incumbent who actually did better than his final numbers, and in his case Gallup famously stopped polling in mid-October.

Also, Wayne Allard was/is a *Republican* incumbent, and Bill McBride, not Janet Reno, was the Democrats' 2002 Florida Gubernatorial nominee.

Posted by: Shawn | Oct 22, 2004 10:07:21 AM

Bill:

Janet Reno lost in the primaries in the 2002 govenor's race.

Posted by: Brian | Oct 22, 2004 3:59:05 PM

There is another rule that the Mystery Pollster did not mention which is that the numbers break away from the third party guy/gal. This, I believe, is what happened in California. Anyone want to look up the numbers and see what happened. The other alternative explanation is that the reported numbers from news organizations for election night excluded Camejo (renormalizing the result as a 2 party race) and the final polls did not.

Posted by: elliottg | Oct 23, 2004 1:08:16 PM

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