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October 30, 2004

Are They Breaking Yet?

Looking for validation of the incumbent rule, more than a few readers (including Mickey Kaus and Noam Scheiber) have asked when we can expect to see undecided start "breaking" toward Kerry. My answer all along has been that we typically see the phenomenon between the last survey and when the ballots are counted.

The theory behind the rule is that those who tell pollsters they are undecided are conflicted: ready to fire the incumbent but still possessing strong doubts about the challenger. In the end, their feelings about the incumbent typically win out, because the incumbent's performance in office is much more central to their ultimate decision. So my hunch (not informed by empirical data) is that the break either occurs at the very last moment or is simply something a voter would rather not admit to a stranger on the phone.

As such, I think Kaus is on to something when he wonders about an "embarrassment" factor that might limit Kerry more on telephone surveys but not on automated, recorded interviews like those done by SurveyUSA and Rasmussen. I think I see evidence of this in the polls by SurveyUSA in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. In each of those states, SUSA has Bush matching the RealClearPolitics average but has Kerry running a few points higher. Their surveys always show a lowerhigher undecided than most other surveys, and Jay Leve, SurveyUSA's director has always speculated it is because their recorded interview better simulates the solitary experience the voting booth. At the same time, I see an opposite pattern in Iowa, Missouri and Colorado - so perhaps I'm just data mining. I want to watch this closely over the weekend.

Nonetheless, a hedge: The best empirical evidence for incumbent rule lies in the surveys gathered by Nick Panagakis, Chris Bowers and Guy Moleneux. I do not have access to their spreadsheets, but I am assuming that most of the surveys they reviewed were fielded during the last calendar week before the election the rather than over the final weekend. Also, campaign pollsters like me believe in the incumbent rule because of our own experience with internal surveys that we almost always complete before the final weekend. So it is possible we may see some signs of a break over the weekend. Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't

When we all started talking about the incumbent rule three weeks ago, there were two key counterarguments. One was that an examination of older Gallup polls showed a number of elections in which incumbents gained during September or October. As Kaus noted, Pat Caddell has made a similar argument. Even if you do not see my point about the incumbent rule working at the end of the campaign, I think we can put that argument to rest. John Kerry gained significant support after the first debate and, once you factor in sampling error, the overall preferences have barely budged since.

Consider an update to my poll of polls approach to the four nightly tracking surveys (by ABC, Zogby, TIPP and Rasmussen). Individually, they have shown small insignificant movement. But average all four and they look remarkably flat. If anything, Kerry may have gained a point in the last few days.


If that finding does not persuade (the tracking polls are all weighted by party, after all), consider the six organizations that polled both last week and this week. Average all six and the results for each week look nearly identical: Bush led by an average of four points last week (49% to 45%) and an average of three points this week (49% to 46%). Bush has not gained. Once again, if anything, Kerry picked up a point. If the averages seem inappropriate given the usual slight differences between organizations (sample sizes, dates, question language, etc.), consider this: Three surveys showed Bush doing slightly better this week, three showed him doing slightly worse. That's exactly what you'd expect if you flipped a coin six times (Note: Democracy Corps actually conducted six standalone surveys over this period. For the table, I simply calculated separate averages for the first three and the second three).


The second argument is that 9/11 and the Iraq War renders the incumbent rule moot. The theory is that conflicted voters will opt to stick with the incumbent rather than "changing horses midstream." Those who make this argument typically point to a number of races in 2002 where undecided voters appeared to break for incumbents. I remain skeptical -- this election looks nothing like 2002 to me -- but we will not know for sure until Tuesday night. Given that Osama bin Laden has reared his evil head once again, 9/11 will certainly be on a lot of minds over the weekend. If nothing else, the counter-argument will get a fair test.

One last thought, as we ponder the final 72 hours of the campaign. Four years ago, pollsters like me looked at the polls released the Friday before Election Day and concluded that the race was over. George Bush looked to be on his way to a comfortable victory. As the table below shows, the polls that day had Bush ahead of Al Gore by an average of five points (47% to 42%). Of course, the Bush DUI story broke that same day. By Monday, seven of the eight surveys that continued to track over the weekend showed a Gore closing the margin to an average of one point (Bush led 46% to 45%).


I include this data not because I expect a repeat of Gore's late surge but to remind everyone that, as Yogi Berra says, "it ain't over till it's over."

[Appropriate table inserted for 2000 polls - 10/31]
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Related Entries - Incumbent Rule, The 2004 Race

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on October 30, 2004 at 12:05 AM in Incumbent Rule, The 2004 Race | Permalink


After Zogby getting a +5 Kerry result in his tracking poll on Thursday, ABC/WaPo shows Bush gaining two points after being up only one yesterday.

As confidence intervals would dictate 1 in 20 poll results being wrong, I posit that Zogby got one in his polling yesterday. And as his is one of four tracking polls, that +5 Kery is what moved the aggregated tracking poll one point.

Unfortunately, this won't drop off until Monday (assuming he does not weight the most recent day's polling more heavily. If he does then we should see it disappear sooner.)

Again, great site.

Posted by: Eric | Oct 30, 2004 10:11:47 AM

Mark, I don't buy the "incumbent rule" when it comes to a Presidential race between a sitting President and a Senator with a 20 year track-record (so I've heard) who has been campaigning for two years. But, if it does apply, it is still likely too small to matter. Polls consistently show only about 4% of undecided voters. Of these, a considerable portion won't show up on Nov. 2. For the sake of argument, let's assume Kerry wins 2 - 1 of those who do. That would only net him 1 point overall, at best.

I don't think that will be close to enough for Kerry although in some states it could be significant. In 2000, polls a week out still showed 10%, or so, undecided. So when the DUI story came out, there were plenty of undecided voters left to influence. That's not where we are in 2004.

Posted by: Al Bucci | Oct 30, 2004 1:16:19 PM

Interesting thoughts on the polls. I'll throw out another idea. Rasmussen always shows a drop in support for Bush in its weekend polls. Weekends in the Fall are all about football. From Friday night high school tilts, to College rivalries to NFL showdowns lots of folks fill up on football over the weekend. I'd hazard to assume that the football crowds tend to skew for the GOP (it is afterall a game of aggressive land acquisition) Democrats might be more available to pollsters on weekends. If Kerry appears closer on Monday than on Friday, I'd attribute his "surge" to the dynamics of football rather than his campaign brilliance. Unlike Gore I don't think Kerry will enjoy a significant advantage in the GOTV arena will probably not significantly outperform his polls vis-a-vis President Bush.
One thing also to remember about 2000 is that the DUI charge deflated Bush's turnout. However, I don't think the problem was the DUI per se, but the fact that at least a few people who paid insufficient attention to the story believed that the charge was new, not twenty years old. (I know several of my students fell into this category.) For those folks the story fit the meme of Bush as being an irresponsible frat boy. I doubt that such charges would hold much weight today.
Another item to remember is that the Marriage Amendment support in LA and MO was several points higher than it polled. In OH and MI polls put support in the low to mid 60s which if patterns hold out will translate into roughly 70% support on election day. If Bush gets 60% of amendment supporters and 25% of the opposition he'll be right at 50% total support in the state. If he gets 65 and 20 he gets 51.5% of the vote. Maybe I'm out on a limb, but I don't think these numbers are that far-fetched, especially the 60/25 split. If the exit polls show support for the marriage amendments running higher than 70% Kerry is absolutely toast.

The Elephant

Posted by: The Elephant | Oct 30, 2004 1:52:58 PM

think you have this "Embarrassment Factor" backwards.

Let's say I support a candidate who has been called "stupid." Well, then if I support him, I must be stupid too.

All those beautiful Hollywood stars, all those TV networks, all the papers. How can little me be right, and CBS be wrong?

I see all those lawn signs for my candidate being stolen, burned, torn up.

And I sense the scorn and derision I face, if I say I support my guy.

Now, do you REALLY think I'd tell a live person that I'm voting for BUSH. No way--at least that automated polling voice won't snear and make fun of me.

Posted by: Steve Zorowitz | Oct 30, 2004 2:39:29 PM

Intersting that you mention the "embarassment factor". I have actually been of a similar opinion for some time -- but in the opposite way. I feel that the well publicized, and media-amplified anti-incumbent rhetoric and vitriol of this election have quieted a lot of Bush supporters. Not that there hasn't been some of this aimed at Mr. Kerry, as well. But it seems to me prominent (and often rather bitingly critical) media and entertainment figures backing the challenger outnumber those backing the incumbent. Moreover, there seems to be a bit of a class thing going on here: Mr. Kerry surely has more support among highly educated types, and these people tend to be called on to voice their opinions more frequently than their less credentialed, less eloquent peers. In short, I think there's a heavy air of "challenger chic" this season. In many quarters, voting for Dubya simply isn't hip, and I suspect his poll numbers suffer accordingly. In the privacy of the voting booth, the president's numbers may well be stronger.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Oct 30, 2004 2:49:52 PM

The "embarassment factor" is real, I just don't know if it really applies in this case. You're much more likely to see if in cases of issue questions or on votes involving minorities - people will hide their bias.

But yesterday, I experienced something that might inform this - a woman who I know and her husband finally decided who to vote for, and she said "Well, we're going to vote for the idiot". That's her comment in affirmation of her vote. How that plays into a poll question - I don't know.

But if you can be thought of as an idiot, and still get a vote... that says something. I just wish I knew what...

Posted by: MEC2 | Oct 30, 2004 3:16:02 PM

I doubt that the "embarassment factor" has much influence on the polls if the samples are random. It is likely to be as small as the "I lie to pollsters because I think it's funny factor" or the "I can't make up my mind, but today I am for [-----] factor" or any other small factor in polling.

Anyone who believes that the corporate press/media has been anti-incumbent is a committed Bush supporter who has no tolerance of any criticism of Bush. Like the man himself, error can never be admitted, and anyone who does not support Bush is a traitor or a madman.

Why can't any Bush supporters acknowledge that there are good, fact-based reasons why a reasonable person might want a different president?

Why is a president who engenders hostility from half the country deemed a great leader by his supporters?

Posted by: James E. Powell | Oct 30, 2004 3:44:31 PM


I bow before your superior intelligence. Unlike SullyAndy, who thanked Bush for invading Iraq but who is now pro-JFK, at least you are honest. JiveTalkinJoshGirlyMan is happy when economy is down. You, sir, are honest man.

I hope JKF loses. But, I predicted that he will win by 5%. Why? Because GOP is lazy. Because JFK has friends like SullyAndy, GirlyManJosh, and of course NYT, NPR, and PBS (reminds me why we need to get the taxloophole out).


Posted by: Ali Karim Bey | Oct 30, 2004 3:53:41 PM

Great site! I have made my prediction
before so I will not restate it.

However I am 100% sure that the next
President of the United States will
be a Yalie.

Posted by: pragmatist | Oct 30, 2004 4:41:28 PM

Ali, if you think that Sully (who has spent an entire day boasting that the Osama tape has won Bush the election), NYT (which lied about WMD in Iraq and has a slew of reporters like Bumiller/Nagourney/Wilgoren/Steele who loathe Kerry and hold tons of water for the GOP) and NPR (whose board is made up of Republicans and which gets most of it's funding from a GOP-dominated government), then you must be Ann Coulter's ghost writer.

What world do you guys live in where you claim that you are being persecuted because of your support for Bush? Do you carry crosses on your backs? Do you live in West Hollywood or Chelsea or Seattle? Otherwise, I can't figure it out. Everywhere that *I* have gone over the past few years, you could never say a single word against ANY Republican without being called a terrorist, being told that you hate America, etc.

If anything it is Kerry supporters who are ashamed and chagrined, because the media, and the GOP, have said that no one can support the "Boston Brahmin" and that if you don't support Bush the terrorists will kill us all.

You guys control the entire government, on state and federal levels. You own the media. WHY do you always pretend to be victims? Can't you ever just stop the martyr act for once and face up to the damage that your party has done to America? Damn...the pity pot needs to be washed off already.

As for the hate amendments that ban wills and hospital visitation rights, many Democrats are likely to vote for them, so the number of votes isn't really a factor here. Bush has been pulling away from OH and OR to go to places like IA and NM and HI, so clearly he knows that these anti-gay amendments are not going to win a state for him.

Posted by: James | Oct 30, 2004 5:01:11 PM

Another thought on the "incumbent rule".

Who did the "rule" help or hurt in 2000?

I suppose you could argue that Gore
was not the incumbent since he was
only the sitting vice-President.

You could also reasonably argue that
as vice-President for 8 years he was
certainly a "known quantity".

I think it is entirely unreasonable
and incorrect to argue that in 2000
Bush was the incumbent.

Given that Gore was logically more
an incumbent than was Bush. Yet the
late votes "broke" to him.

Does that help validate, invalidate
or does not apply to the vote in

Posted by: pragmatist | Oct 30, 2004 6:03:49 PM

Looking at the latest Zogby poll, I noticed that the vote with leaners is 47/46 Kerry. Without leaners it is 46/46. I'm guessing leaners are the first of the last to make up their minds, and they appear to be going completely to Kerry. Bush isn't getting any leaners in the latest poll. Also, 1/3 of this survey was conducted after the OBL tape.

Posted by: Tom Jackson | Oct 30, 2004 6:50:05 PM

Regarding Zogby. His poll was up on Realpolitics by 10 PM EST Friday.

That said, I've seen that ABC/WaPo also got a good Kerry number.

The question is whether the OBL tape was even seen by the time the tracking was done. Those who follow the election closely misattribute their up-to-the-minute passion to others.

Id it wasn't, then Kerry was surging nationally, but how to explain the OH numbers?

Posted by: Eric | Oct 30, 2004 8:08:01 PM

Sir James,

Those who have discriminated against me (race baiting, gender baiting) have always been card carrying liberal democrats. You liberals suck! You talk about equity but when it comes to you or your family, you forget that. The worse elitists I have seen/met/heard, are nothing but no good lyin',cheatin',pimpin',whorin'liberals. Do not get me started. I do not like Bush. But, I would take GOP any day than Democrats. Hell, I hate to be discrimated for another 8 to 20 years.

No way. If JFK wins, I will put all blame on GOP voters (because of their laziness).


Posted by: Ali Karim Bey | Oct 30, 2004 8:49:13 PM

Viewed from the distance the 49th parallel gives it is difficult to see any increase in the number of people voting for Kerry. Most of the Kerry vote, across all the demo and psycho graphics seems to be an anti-Bush deal.

OBL's Halloween surprise will have two effects - first, it is likely to make waivering Bushies ask the question "What signal would a Kerry victory send and do we want to send it?" OBL is essentially saying what the Fat Bastard has been saying - America is lead by an ignorant, incompetant man. But does America believe this?

The second effect is the obvious: OBL's video was a "Boo!". A reminder that this is a wartime election with an enemy undefeated. For all of Kerry's "do whatever it takes" remarks, his record and his nuisance remark are going to be underlined by OBL's video. For the security moms, the people living in large cities, the people who are concerned with terrorism arriving on America's shores, Kerry is not reassuring.

The "idiot" knows one big thing - the President's first job is to keep America secure. Nuance is nice, but France is not going to be much help if a dirty bomb goes off in Cleveland. Bush knows that, Kerry doesn't.

Bush by 5 and 20 EC votes.

Posted by: Jay Currie | Oct 30, 2004 8:49:26 PM

I am amazed that anyone thinks that the "embarassment Factor" relates to Bush voters. I live in a college town and still get ridiculed and yelled at for having one of those small Kerry bumper stickers. I have had five KE signs stolen from my yard.(After the second one was stolen, I contributed a ton of money and bought signs, hats, shirts, etc.) Yesterday, my wife got some Cheney speak from some Cheney look-a-likes. The young republicans on campus are out screaming and chalking everyday. Puhlease with the persecution complex.

Posted by: JohnC | Oct 30, 2004 9:00:48 PM

The "embarasssment factor" is somewhat documented in the 1992 British Elections. There were a number of factors in the famed lack of accuracy among British pollsters. Among those factors cited in the post election analysis was the unwillingness of some Tory voters to respond to poll questions with an an indication of Party support. They indicated an "Undecided" response because there was a national perception that a) Labour was going to win and b) it was not "acceptable" to vote Tory. Hence, the unwillingness to express their true opinion; basically it just wasn't kool to be Tory. But when asked "Which Party did you vote for in the last general election?" nearly 9 out of 10 responded "Tory." As the results demonstrate, these were really Tory voters who were "embarrassed".

Of couse, see the seminal work on this behavior by Noelle Neumann "The Spiral Silence." The phrase "spiral of silence" actually refers to how people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority.

Rick Ridder

Posted by: Rick Ridder | Oct 30, 2004 9:14:55 PM

Ali, I think I've finally figured out that you are a parody, but if not, then enjoy the party of Jesse Helms and David Duke. They certainly know about equality.

Jay, if people are going to vote based on who keeps them safe, why the hell would they vote for Bush? bin Laden is more powerful than ever thanks to Bush. America is more despised and endangered than ever thanks to us going to Iraq and bungling things up. He's done nothing but cause us to be more likely to be killed by terrorists. That's what happens when you have a President who cares more about his political career than about America. Do you really think that these so-called "security moms" (this is tiresome talking points, about as valid as "NASCAR dads") are going to be comforted by Bush when they see all over the news that EIGHT soldiers were killed in Iraq today?

If this crook and fraud were going to have a big surge because of bin Laden, we would have seen it by now. He may have a boost, but I don't know if it will be enough to put him over the top. For all the talk of Kerry's ceiling, Bush's ceiling is generally 47/48%, which is horrible for an incumbent. People are wary of supporting him even when they have been bullied and called terrorists and America-haters by members of your party. This Tuesday they are finally going to take the leap of faith.

BTW, do you support your party when they brag that this tape was a "gift" and "helpful"? John McCain certainly did you proud when he said that.

Posted by: James | Oct 30, 2004 11:23:26 PM

Sir James,

GOP can screw you. They do it in your face.

Democrats can screw you. They do it in you back.

I like facing problems up front. So, I guess I prefer lesser of two evils.

Since you are an elitist liberal, you should respect my right not to be on your discriminating/backstabbing side. Unless of course you do not believe people should think for themselves...you fraud democrats.


Posted by: Ali Karim Bey | Oct 30, 2004 11:30:21 PM

AKB, if you have anything interesting to say about polling, which is what this site is all about, the please say it. Otherwise you are just cluttering up an otherwise remarkable site.

There are plenty of websites available where you can post your anti-liberal drivel.

Thanks so much!

Posted by: Anthony Stevens | Oct 31, 2004 12:33:29 AM

So in other words, Ali, you're saying that if you want dry, strained, miserable, unhappy relations, vote GOP. If you want wild, hot, passionate, unpredictable sex, then vote Democrat.

I guess I can't argue with that.

Posted by: James | Oct 31, 2004 4:44:46 AM

The polls are off Kerry will win by 3-5% on election day and by 60+ points in the EC. The simple reason is that the polls have not fully taken into account the record number of Democrats that will vote on Tuesday to remove the hated Bush.

Every poll takes a sample of registered and or likely voters based on each parties registration and prior voting patterns in past elections in that state or throughout the USA. These samples are based on PROJECTED voter turnout and there is no way any poll can project the large increase in % of Dems voting in 04 compared to 2000.

Every close swing state will go to Kerry and it will all be over on election night.

Posted by: Derek | Oct 31, 2004 11:13:46 AM

I've noticed something interesting on examining the questionaire from recent polls by Mason-Dixon. They are including one or two initial questions about favorability before they ask the big question about how people would vote. From my understanding of polling techniques, this practice could slant the result of the key question - possibly subtly, but not necessarily. Interestingly, the polls that (at least obviously) do not use this method seem to get results in key states that are somewhat less favorable to Bush. I think this may be just as important a factor in judging the reliability of a particular poll as demographic weights. What do you think?

Posted by: IAN | Oct 31, 2004 1:34:59 PM

It's 1pm, Monday 11/1, and the polls are breaking right now. Incumbent rule is being proved right. New Fox poll has Kerry up +2, Marist has Kerry now up +1, Gallup/USA has it even (factoring in undecideds breaking to Kerry), Real Clear Politics has the overall trends that had been easily +2.8 for Bush for two weeks down to 1.3 for Bush. On Sunday every one of the 12 polls they follow was either Bush or a tie; as of Monday 1p, three are ties, two are Kerry and the remaining 7 Bush polls all show a shrinking lead, and that includes the bizarre Newsweek survey from Friday that had Bush +6. There's a trend. You can see it. You can smell it.

Posted by: Robert | Nov 1, 2004 1:08:28 PM

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