Priming the Vote Among Low Wage Workers?

08/04/2008 02:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How is Barack Obama doing among low income white voters? Quite well, says the headline and lead of a front page story in today's Washington Post. But before leaping to conclusions, we might want to take a closer look at the complete survey questionnaire.

Under the headline "Obama leads, Pessimism Reigns Among Key Group," The Washington Post tells us that Barack Obama "holds a 2 to 1 edge" over John McCain "among the nation's low-wage workers." The Post, in partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, interviewed 1,350 randomly selected adults under 65 earning $27,000 a year or less and working at least 30 hours a week. Obama's margin was 56% to 27% among all adult respondents,, slightly more (58% to 28%) among registered voters. But the result getting much attention today came in the second paragraph (emphasis added):

Obama's advantage is attributable largely to overwhelming support from two traditional Democratic constituencies: African Americans and Hispanics. But even among white workers -- a group of voters that has been targeted by both parties as a key to victory in November -- Obama leads McCain by 10 percentage points, 47 percent to 37 percent, and has the advantage as the more empathetic candidate.

"Now this," writes TPM's Greg Sargent, "should put the "Obama's working class whites problem" meme to rest." Perhaps.

Taken at face value, Obama's margins do look strong, even stronger than what John Kerry received four years ago among similar voters according to exit polling. While I cannot precisely replicate the universe sampled by Post/Kaiser/Harvard study, the respondent level exit poll data from 2004 available from the Roper archive get us pretty close. I tabulated results for voters under 65 with incomes under $30,000 a year who said they were employed full time. Those voters supported Kerry by a nearly twenty point margin (59% to 40%), while the white voters in the subgroup divided almost evenly, 50% for Kerry to 49% for Bush.

So a survey showing Obama leading by 10 point among low income white voters would certainly represent an improvement.

But take a closer look at the complete questionnaire that -- to their credit -- the Post published online. The presidential vote preference question (#36) comes (by my count) 59 items and roughly 15 minutes into the interview. Before asking about presidential vote preference the survey probed respondents about their personal financial situation, the state of the American economy, their priorities for the things "the government might do to try to improve people's financial situation." They suggested seven different things "you or someone in your family done in the past year to make ends meet," and asked if any applied.

They also asked respondents if their "personal financial situation" has improved or declined since "George W. Bush took office in 2001" (48% said it had declined, 11% said it improved). And finally, immediately before asking the the presidential vote preference question, they asked:

During the past year, have you or has someone in your family had your overtime or regular hours cut back at work, or not?

During the past year, have you or has someone in your family been laid off or lost your job, or not?

And then they asked which candidate they would be most likely to support. Do we think that priming respondents for 15 minutes about the state of the economy and their own personal financial insecurities would have no impact on their vote preference?

Don't get me wrong. The researchers that designed this study are among the best in the field. The survey itself represents an extraordinary and unparalleled effort to "take a close look" the the lives of low wage workers "and try to understand how they are faring amidst all the economic changes around them," as Washington Post economics correspondent Michael Fletcher puts it in a companion video analysis. Among other aspects of their rigorous methodology, the pollsters used used cell phone interviewing to get an adequate representation of low wage workers living without land line phones.

However, if the pollsters wanted to measure where the presidential vote preferences stand now among low income workers, they should have asked the vote preference question up front. The results they obtained tell us something about how low wage workers might react to a campaign framed entirely on economic and pocketbook issues (a finding that presents an obvious strategy for Obama). As such, its measurement of vote preferences is hypothetical and possibly misleading.

Update:  University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political science professor Tom Holbrook was thinking along the same lines.