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Are Election Exit Polls Misrepresenting Latino Sentiment?

November 9, 2010   View Discussion

Are Election Exit Polls Misrepresenting Latino Sentiment?

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

Polling data released last week by Latino Decisions, a group comprised of researchers and Latino scholars, shows a marked impact by Latino voters on the 2010 elections in many states. In Colorado and Nevada, the Latino vote proved decisive in keeping pro-immigrant incumbents in the Senate and thereby allowing the Democrats to retain their majority. Latino Decisions did intensive polling of Latino voters in eight battleground states.

Of Latino Decisions respondents, 76%  said they voted for a Democrat for Congress. Nearly half of those voting said they voted to “support and represent the Latino community.” This means they weren’t voting because they are loyal Democrats, they were voting because they perceive their community as under siege.

For 83% of respondents, the immigration issue played a role in their decision of whom to vote for. Since only 13% agreed with deportation as a solution to undocumented immigration, I think we know which direction the immigration issue pushed the Latino vote. Three-out-of-four said that the extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric raised during the 2010 campaign influenced their voting decisions.

The polling also showed that where Democrats stood up for immigrant rights, as did Harry Reid and Jerry Brown, the Latino vote differential was significantly higher than when Democrats tried to pretend immigration was not an issue, as they did in the Florida governor’s race.

“The cautionary tale is that for Democrats, you have to show some backbone,”  Frank Sharry of America’s Voice told Politico.

Latino Decisions polling showed a Hispanic electorate that was even more lopsidedly Democratic than the network exit polls. Latino Decisions believes that flaws in exit polling have led to a distortion of Latino opinions.

Gary Segura and Matt Barreto, who conducted the group’s polling, issued a statement saying, “We believe the data convincingly show that the 2010 national exit poll severely misestimated the Latino vote.” 

Polling guru Nate Silver, who authors FiveThirtyEight, a polling blog for The New York Times, has read through Latino Decision’s data and found Segura and Barreto’s arguments convincing.

There are several reasons exit polls may be distorting Latino voter opinion. The first is that exit polls are not random. Certain precincts are selected because they have characteristics that make them bellweathers, i.e., predictors of the overall victors in statewide races. Latino dominant precincts are rarely selected for exit polling and, as a result, the Latinos actually interviewed by exit pollers are typically living in heterogeneous election districts.

According to Segura and Barreto this means they are higher income and more likely to be Republicans than Latinos living in primarily Hispanic neighborhoods. The authors explain the problem:

[Latino]voters who are interviewed are more likely to come from low-density, heterogeneous or predominantly white precincts than should be the case. Assimilated, middle-class, and English dominant respondents are over-represented while poorer, socially segregated, and Spanish dominant respondents are underrepresented. The result, inevitably, is a conservative or pro-GOP bias.

A third problem is that exit poll interviews are conducted in English, a language that many immigrant voters find difficult to use for abstract political discussions. This means that exit polls capture the opinions of fully English-fluent Latinos much better than those of voters with some difficulty using the language.

Here is why this is a problem, according to Latino Decisions:

When Latino Decisions polls registered voters at random, we offer all respondents an immediate opportunity to speak Spanish. Since our interviewers are bilingual, this does not require a call back or even a delay—the interviewer proceeds in Spanish without interruption. Since we use computer-assisted telephone interviewing protocols, we can even switch back and forth if the respondent does not understand a question on one language or the other. While the share varies from state to state and over time, we generally get a volunteered Spanish interview rate of around 40% nationally which, not surprisingly, is very close to the share of the Latino electorate that is foreign born…

Exit polls provide no such opportunity. Spanish language interviewing is available only on a limited basis. Specifically, field staff may make Spanish questionnaires available in majority-Latino precincts, which numbered 11 nationwide in 2004; but not available in the thousands of other precincts they select. The result is that the total share of all Latino interviews conducted in Spanish is extremely small. In 2004, for example, 35 interviews were completed in Spanish out of 638 Latinos in the national NEP dataset, or 4.7%. While it is certainly plausible to expect English-dominant citizens to register and vote at a higher rate, the fact that we used registered voter lists and screen for vote propensity eliminates this effect from our numbers.

In short, exit polls are under-surveying Spanish-dominant Latino citizens by almost 10-fold. This result is consistent with our earlier design concerns and reinforces our claim that exit polls over-represent assimilated, middle class, and later generation Latinos, introducing a systematic bias.

The upshot: While exit polls may interview an appropriate number of Latino voters, the Latinos they interview vastly under-represent lower income Latinos who are naturalized citizens, and since roughly four in ten Latinos in the US is foreign-born, that’s a sizable miscalculation.


Image courtesy of robertpalmer via Flickr.

 

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