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Placing Michigan's 'Uncommitted' Votes In Context

01/21/2008 10:38 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Did Michigan's "uncommitted" vote reveal anything about race?

On the heels of the Michigan primary, race has become a central issue among Democratic candidates, pundits of all persuasions and voters yet to participate in their state primaries. CNN exit poll results released Tuesday night continue to fuel speculation that Sen. Hillary Clinton has a problem attracting African-American voters.

At 9 p.m. on election night, before all precincts had reported voting results, CNN released a brief report citing "potentially troubling news for Clinton in Michigan win." The report claimed that "roughly 70 percent of African-Americans cast their votes for `uncommitted.' "

But did the exit polling actually reveal anything about race and voter preference in Michigan and can this information shed light on primaries in other states?

"Considering that it was an uncompetitive election with very low turnout rates, it's very hard to extrapolate what happened in Michigan's Democratic primary to explain what is happening in actual competitive races," said Stewart L. French, professor of political science at Saginaw Valley State University.

An expert in political parties and elections, French says that exit poll findings must be taken in context of voter turnout. Percentages based on small numbers of voters don't reliably indicate trends in voter behavior. He says that Michigan's Democratic primary is too unusual to be compared to other primaries across the country. The ballot was incomplete and the race, uncompetitive.

CNN based its claim on exit polling data that sampled 997 voters who participated in Tuesday's election. Of the 997 respondents, 23 percent identified as African-American - 229 voters. The exit poll reported 68 percent of those voted "uncommitted."

"The media's reaction to this is going to influence the South Carolina race where there is a heavy African-American population and where there are race issues," French said.

In the case of the 229 African-American participants in the CNN poll, there is doubt that their views "reflect accurately the attitudes of all Michigan African-Americans."

The media are "extrapolating from African-Americans who did vote and making conclusions about African-Americans who didn't vote and then turning that into `African-Americans don't like Hillary,' " French said.

Oversampling and undersampling can compromise accuracy of polling data. A random sample doesn't always produce a true representation of the population. So pollsters sometimes seek out more or fewer of a certain group. Instead of a random sample of precincts, pollsters choose which to include based on demographics. But, French says, problems can creep in if the turnout is low. Pollsters can't be sure the attitudes of the individuals included represent the actual population.

CNN exit polling results raise questions beyond the impact of race on the "uncommitted" vote. Sixty percent of female respondents favored Clinton. Do Edwards and Obama have a disadvantage among women voters? Voters aged 18-29 overwhelmingly voted "uncommitted." Does Clinton have a disadvantage among young voters?

"A lot of people assume if Edwards dropped out all his people would go for Obama, but that is not true," French said. According to the CNN exit polls, 30 percent of Edwards supporters said they voted for Clinton, not "uncommitted."

"There is a lot of stuff going on here and it's more nuanced than the media want to make it out to be," said French. "Uncommitted" actually beat Clinton in two counties - Washtenaw and Emmet. But neither win seems to be a matter of African-American voters skewing the outcome.

Preliminary examination of precinct data point to possible crossover voting by Republicans in Emmet County. According to the U.S. census, Emmet County's population is 0.5 percent black. French compared the primary results with precinct results from the last gubernatorial election, and found "uncommitted" winning in places that Republican Dick DeVos had carried by 60 percent.

Clinton faced the strongest competition in Washtenaw County. Washtenaw's support for "uncommitted" may be correlated to age, income and education level. According to the CNN exit poll data, "uncommitted" scored strongly among 18-29-year-olds, people with postgraduate degrees, and those earning $100,000 or more. Washtenaw's median household income at $55,431 is well above the state median. While 21 percent of Michigan adults have a college degree, in Washtenaw the figure is 48 percent.

The county is home to the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and several small colleges, which could account for a significant number of young voters. Washtenaw County's population is 12.5 percent black, below the state rate of 14 percent.

Stewart says the only way to really understand what was happening was to ask voters. On Tuesday, voters chose "uncommitted" for a range of reasons. Some supported Obama, others Edwards. Some had other reasons. One Ann Arbor voter wanted "to send a message to the DNC that there are Democrats in Michigan who want to be counted." Many expressed anger at the Democratic Party for allowing the Michigan election to become so confused and possibly irrelevant.

This piece is also published on Michigan Messenger.