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Polls and Early Voting in Florida

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One note on early voting and the Florida Republican primary. Charles Franklin’s excellent “endgame” summary shows a roughly eight point drop in Rudy Giuliani’s support since December. But the Giuliani campaign sees some hope in early voting. As Newsday reports:

Giuliani’s campaign made a case that it could win here on the back of its get-out-the-vote efforts aimed at early and absentee voters, who are expected to top 450,000 and to account for a third of the turnout.

Are polls showing Guiliani running ten to fifteen percentage points behind frontrunners Mitt Romney and John McCain missing the impact of early voting? Not likely. Of the eight organizations, only three reported the number of Republican primary voters who said they had “already voted” at the time they were interviewed: 27% by SurveyUSA, 25% by PPP and 19% by the Suffolk University poll. All three also provided tabulations comparing early voters to those yet to cast a ballot:

01-28 florida early voting.png

The SurveyUSA and PPP results show Giuliani running a few percentage points higher among early voters, although neither difference is large enough to be statistically significant given the relatively small sample sizes involved. The Suffolk survey finds few Giuliani supporters in its even smaller subgroup of early voters, but even if you ignore the Suffolk result and treat the differences measured by SurveyUSA and PPP as statistically meaningful, they offer Giuliani little hope. Those results are also consistent with Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime’s acknowledgement to Newsday that early voting “could make a difference of only a few percentage points.”

Rudy Giuliani just appeared on Morning Joe on MSNBC and reiterated his confidence in the early vote:

I think the early voting in unprecedented in number. I believe we’ll do very well because we campaigned all during that period bringing out that early vote.

One handicap the Giuliani faced is that the period of early voting occurred over the last fifteen days. However, as Charles Franklin’s endgame graphic shows, significant erosion in Giuliani’s support had already occurred by January 1, so the potential gain from early voting is limited:

01-28 endgame giuliani.png

What about the five or six other polls whose public releases said little or nothing about how they handled early voting? As poll consumers, unfortunately, we are once again in the dark. I assume that most handled early voting as the three cited above did: Their screen questions presumably gave respondents the option to say they had already voted, and hopefully rephrased their trial heat questions to ask early voters about their preferences in the past tense. But we do not know that for sure. Given that early voters may cast a third of Florida’s ballots, disclosure of the way media polls handle early voting ought to be a no-brainer. Why don’t their media sponsors demand it?

PS: Tonight’s exit polls in Florida will include sample of interviews conducted by telephone among early voters, and those results will be weighted with the interviews conducted at polling places today to the best estimate available of absentee ballots as a percentage of all votes cast.

Clarification: Daniel is right to point out a distinction I had missed that Florida makes between “early” and “absentee” voting:

There is an important point of clairification. Early voting *at the polls* has only been going on for the last 15 days. However, it’s my understanding that abstentee voting by mail has been going on since early December. I have no data on what percentage of the 400K votes were at the polls vs by mail, nor do I know anything about the exact wording of the voter screens. My point is that “early voting” and “abstentee voting” are not the same concept in Florida.

Unfortunately, the Florida Secretary of State's absentee voting page does not indicate when "absentee" voting begins. Either way, the available survey data suggest that the preferences of early and absentee voters are, at best, a few percentage points more favorable to Guiliani.

Either way, it is extremely unlikely that pollsters systematically excluded or screening out early and absentee voters. My assumption is that most accounted for early/absentee voters as SurveyUSA and PPP did but reported nothing about their procedures. The worst case is that a pollster that made no modification to their screen and trial heat questions to accommodate early or absentee voters. Under that scenario, I would imagine that those who had already voted would choose the "very likely" to vote option (or the interviewers would choose it for them), and that voters would report their actual choice as the candidate they would support "if the election were held today." So one way or another, the choices of those early voters are probably included in the surveys we have before us.

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