Quick, what do you think when you see this picture associated with a campaign right before an election? When the ol’ “Dewey beats Truman” analogy comes a callin’, you know we’re talking about a campaign where folks are trying to come up with a reason to say there’s still a race.
In Ohio, the equivalent is the 2005 Reform Ohio Now movement. And that’s exactly what the Cleveland Plain Dealer was quick to point out to dismiss the 25-point Quinnipiac point lead the anti-Issue 2 side has:
[John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron] recalled what happened to the package of four “Reform Ohio Now” constitutional amendments that a coalition of Democrats, unions and academics placed on the fall 2005 ballot. The amendments would have allowed early absentee voting, lowered campaign contribution limits, changed the system for redrawing congressional and legislative districts and shifted oversight of statewide elections from the secretary of state to a nine-member panel.
At least three of the amendments were expected to pass, according to polls, but after voters finished on Election Day, all four were defeated.
We’ve seen some conservative folks trying to start the “Remember RON” meme, too. So, we decided to take a look back.
First, Green is wrong about polls showing three of the amendments were expected to pass (it was a four-amendment package.) But Green can’t be faulted for what has become an urban legend in Ohio politics: how “all the polls” showed RON was incredibly popular only to see them all soundly defeated come election day. But Green should know this isn’t actually true, since it was his Bliss Institute that released one of last polls on the RON amendments:
State Issue Two (Absentee Balloting)
State Issue Three (Campaign Contributions)
State Issue Four (Nonpartisan Redistricting)
State Issue Five (Role of Secretary of State)
The University of Akron poll was kind of weird in that the poll was “in the field” for over a month. In other words, the results were inherently unreliable because people who may have been surveyed in early October may have changed their minds by the time the poll actually came out. That’s not just a theory, that’s what the “other” poll on the race, the Columbus Dispatch poll, showed.
At the time of the RON Amendments in 2005, the Columbus Dispatch was still conducting their unorthodox poll in which it would mail surveys to people, then tabulate the results that were mailed back, and then statistically weigh the results to try to adjust for response bias and come up with a result. The Dispatch’s mail-in poll, too, showed only two of the four having a chance in heck of passing (not three):
State Issue 2 (absentee balloting)
Yes – 59% (68)
No – 33% (28)
Undecided – 9% (7)
State Issue 3 (contribution limits)
Yes: 61% (70)
No: 25% (15)
Undecided: 14% (15)
State Issue 4 (redistricting)
Yes: 31% (28)
No: 45% (38)
Undecided: 25% (36)
State Issue 5 (Role of SoS)
Yes: 41% (42)
No: 43% (37)
Undecided: 16% (20)
The numbers in the () was from the prior Dispatch poll roughly a month earlier.
Both the Dispatch and the University of Akron’s methodologies were highly criticized in professional polling circles. So much so that neither one does this kind of polling anymore. In other words, just like Gallup’s methodology in the Truman-Dewey race was flawed because Gallup failed to adjust for the statistical partisan bias caused by polling households with telephones at a time when many working class and middle class houses still didn’t have a phone, these polls had flawed methodologies that should have lead people to realize that you couldn’t rely on them to be an accurate predictor of the final result. It was a modern “Truman beats Dewey” moment in political polling lore.
PPP and Quinnipiac are vastly more respected, use conventional professional public opinion polling methodologies, and have a better proven track record than either the now defunct University of Akron and Dispatch’s mail in polls. That is the first major and fundamental difference between Issue 2 in 2011 and the RON amendments in 2005.
The second major difference is the trendline. As flawed as the Dispatch’s unconventional methodology proved to be, it did accurately predict something the Akron poll was so flawed it couldn’t pick up: a negative trendline. In a matter of a three to four weeks, the Dispatch noticed that the gap in the polling had narrowed considerably across the board over the month of October:
- Issue 2 (RON): Lost 14 points of its “lead.”
- Issue 3 (RON): Lost 19.
- Issue 4 went deeper into hole by four points.
- Issue 5 saw a seven point swing.
In Issue 2, the polling has been far more consistent, and we haven’t seen the kind of negative trends RON showed right before the election. With the exception of PPP, prior results before the past week, the results have been constant. To the extent there’s a discernable trendline at all, it’s in favor of repeal Issue 2. Take a look at Quinnipiac’s trend:
September is the only month that showed any hint of substantial movement, and it appears to be a statistic blip. There just simply is more polling on this issue, by more reputable pollsters, using more reputable methodologies that was utterly lacking in the polls on RON in 2005.
There are other differences as well. In 2005, RON was outspent 5:2. The opposite is true in We Are Ohio. The only time a referendum in Ohio failed in which the repeal side had more money than the keep the law side was the payday industry referendum in 2008. This is not that campaign, either. Then there’s the professionalism and staffing of the two campaigns. We Are Ohio makes the RON amendments look like a local school board election campaign in comparison. In short, RON was almost doomed to fail because they were out staffed, out spent, and generally out gunned in every factor of a political campaign. None of which applies to the We Are Ohio campaign in 2011. It’s just not an appropriate political analogy.
The public awareness on Issue 2 is vastly higher than it was with RON. One reason Building a Better Ohio can’t get any traction in the polls is that most Ohioans were already familiar with SB 5 and had long made up their minds about it during the spring, months before Building a Better Ohio tried to shape public opinion on an issue in which the electorate’s opinion is simply not as malleable as it was in 2005 when it came to the RON amendments that most Ohioans were completely unfamiliar with beyond the ad deluge that the anti-RON Republican campaign was able to wage.
In 2009, Issue 3 was the issue to pass a constitutional amendment mandating casinos throughout the State of Ohio in a constitutional mandate written by the casino developers. The Ohio Poll, by the University of Cincinnati, showed shortly before the election that it was ahead 57% to 39%. The final result was 53% to 47%. So that was an 18-point advantage in the polls, but only a 6-point advantage on election day. So that means the polls are highly unreliable on predicting issue elections, right? Wrong. Like the PPP and Quinnipiac polls are today, the Ohio Poll was a poll of registered voters.
Registered voters is not necessarily reflective of likely voters. But because likely voter models are difficult to accurate create in the first place, especially for issue campaigns as opposed to partisan races, most pollsters stick to a register voter model, even though that means the results are slightly Democratic because there are more voters registered as Democrats, but Democratic voters tend not to vote, especially in off-year elections like in 2009. The casino was strictly a non-partisan issue. It didn’t motive much of either party’s base, except social conservatives opposed to gambling to some extent, I guess.
Issue 2 isn’t a partisan issue, given that nearly a third of registered Republicans favor the defeat of Issue 2, but it has definitely motivated the partisan base of the Democrats such that many experts believe this might be a far more Democratic turnout than we’ve seen in issue campaigns in off-elections.
So, yes, it’s true. We’re probably not going to actually see Issue 2 defeated by twenty-five points in two weeks, but that’s not saying that Issue 2 has much of a chance to pull a “RON” or a “Truman” though. After all, do you know what that Gallup Poll that showed Dewey beating Truman before the election said?
That’s 1/5 the margin the polls are showing We Are Ohio has. If recent polling history is any guide, Issue 2 is likely to be defeated by a ten to fifteen point margin. Not as big as those shown by Quinnipiac, but still sizeable beating… especially for a first-year Governor who got elected by only two points in a plurality victory.
We can’t get complacent in the final two weeks, but RON is hardly something we need to be concerned about.