Polls Fail Again in Predicting Outcome of Ohio Pot Referendum, Kentucky Governor's Race

Election Day 2015 did not go smoothly for pollsters.


It's a tough time to be a pollster.

The art and science of predicting how people will vote is getting harder every day. A year ago, pre-election surveys fairly dramatically underestimated how Republicans would fare in the midterms. Since then, polls of voters in both Israel and the United Kingdom were revealed to have been way off. And last night in Ohio and Kentucky, pollsters missed again.

Pot plants in Oregon
United States Fish and Wildlife Service / Wikipedia

In the Buckeye State, voters were presented with a chance to weigh in on whether or not to follow in Colorado and Washington's footsteps by legalizing marijuana use. As of early October, polls were finding a majority supporting such a move. 

Admittedly, two weeks before the voting booths opened, a Bowling Green State survey found the margin had narrowed. "The November 3rd vote on legalizing marijuana in Ohio is too close to call," reported NBC24.com. "The poll…showed 44 percent supporting Issue Three and 43 percent opposing it. Thirteen percent are undecided. Since the margin of error is plus or minus three and a half percent, it's a dead heat."

But the outcome didn't end up being close. Instead, voters roundly defeated the measure, with more than 64 percent rejecting the plan to create 10 facilities with exclusive commercial rights to grow pot plants. You can see my colleague Jacob Sullum's take on the results here.

Meanwhile, just to the south, voters in the Bluegrass State were charged with selecting their next governor. As my colleague Peter Suderman explained last night, the polling got it wrong there too:

Surveys showed that Republican candidate Matt Bevin, a venture capitalist and Tea Party favorite who had unsuccessfully challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a GOP primary less than two years ago, had partially closed the gap with Democratic candidate Jack Conway, but was still expected to lose by about two points. 

Instead, Bevin won in a landslide, besting Conway by nine points, with 53 percent of the vote to Conway's 44 percent. 

Conducting survey research during off-year elections is notoriously difficult, mostly because far fewer people generally turn out—and guessing what the electorate will look like demographically is one of the hardest things survey practitioners have to do. As I explained back in May:

Because it's impossible in most cases to get a truly representative sample, pollsters are forced to use complicated statistical modeling to adjust their data. If you know, for instance, that your poll reached too few young people, you might "weight up" the millennial results you did get. But doing this involves making some crucial assumptions—namely, what is the correct number of millennials? 

We don't know before Election Day what percentage of the electorate will actually be under 30, or Hispanic, or even Democrats vs. Republicans. So pollsters have to guess. This creates a lot of room for error, and means that part of the reason recent elections underestimated the actual conservative vote share could be that pollsters are systematically assuming left-of-center voters will turn out in larger numbers than they actually do.

But off-year polls are also less trustworthy for another, often-overlooked reason: namely, that there are just so darn many fewer of them.

Ultimately, in a world in which polling is hard and getting harder, the smartest thing an observer can do is to look at the average across a large number of independently conducted surveys. One of the reasons Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has had so much success over the last few cycles is that he makes use of a model that incorporated lots of different polls—conducted by lots of different outfits and using lots of different methodologies—in order to reduce the likelihood that the read he's getting is skewed.

The more polls a model has to work with, the more accurate it's likely to be. As Silver wrote in an October 2012 blog post titled "State Poll Averages Usually Call Election Right":

It is important to emphasize that this analysis covers cases in which there were at least three distinct polling firms active in a state; you will find more frequent misses in cases where there were just one or two polls. … There are no precedents in the database for a candidate losing with a two- or three-point lead in a state when the polling volume was that rich.

But off-year elections, like local elections (and races that are expected to be a runaway for one candidate or the other), tend to attract fewer polls—which in turn increases the chances that the few polls being conducted will end up being wrong.

NEXT: Yesterday's Election: A Challenge for Democrats—and a Crisis for Politics

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  1. And yet we keep citing the polls before elections.

    1. Every day the top news story on most stations is who is in front in the polls for the presidential nominations. We still have a whole year to go yet there rarely is something more important to report than whether or not Carson is ahead of Trump.

      1. Carson is a very bright guy, but I don’t think he should be President. He’s just not very good on the issues, at leaset not for me, being a libertarian. He actually sounds like he’s doing a Ted Talks every debate.

        I really do think that his popularity is partially due to him being black. It’s like the GOP voters need to say ‘hey Dems, here’s our black guy and he’s a fucking brain surgeon!’. Really, I don’t get his popularity. I mean, I think he’s a good guy, but his policy stances are sort of strange and unclear, sort of like Trump take away some of the crazy.

        1. He is a contradiction in a lot of ways. He sounded great when destroying Obama and Obamacare at the National Prayer Breakfast but get him to rant on the drug war and he sounds worse than Christie. I tend to dismiss the “not experienced enough as a politician” argument because I remain unconvinced that experienced politicians are somehow better than those that aren’t at being leaders.

          There is something to be said that him being black gets the left in to fits when they try and play identity politics with him, and that may in fact be the big draw for him right now. And the left reveals just how racist they are when they play the ‘Safe Negro’ But there is no denying his ability to overcome the odds and turn out the way he did is something we should be celebrating, regardless of his color.

          Whether or not this makes him a good president remains to be seen.

          1. It’s the lack of experience in any leadership role, not just the lack of experience in politics. His contemplative nature is much more compatible with being on SCOTUS than in the White House.

            1. At John Hopkin’s he was the youngest major division director in the hospital’s history when he became director of pediatric neurosurgery, and he is also a co-director of the Johns Hopkins Craniofacial Center.

              He’s had plenty of leadership roles in the medical field. Whether or not that matters to be president is a reasonable question, but we’ve had other leaders with plenty of political experience who were outright disasters as presidents.

              I’m not convinced he’s the best candidate available but Hillary or Bernie is far worse from a libertarian perspective as far as I can tell.

              1. I have a lot of respect for Carson and his achievements. Also, for a self described conservative who didn’t hide it, like him, to even survive let alone prosper in a place that is so over the top liberal as the JH medical campus, is quite remarkable in and of itself. Even so, they eventually drove him out as they will anyone who dares openly question the liberal PC narrative.

                Anway, Carson is a very strange guy when it comes to issues. Can anyone tell me what we would actually be getting with Carson in terms of policy? I don’t even have a clue and not sure how anyone else can tell also. I think what you have here is a guy who has personally experienced that something is wrong in the direction of our country, and he wants to do something about it. But for a guy who has spent a lifetime in an environment like he has, I don’t know how he thinks in terms of these things. Maybe he can finally figure it out and let us all know. Until then, the jury in definitely out on this guy. Rand Paul is clearly the best, with only Cruz and maybe Carly trailing pretty far behind.

                1. I agree that there is a big “?” surrounding Ben and what he stands for exactly, but I have liked the way he’s fought back against the left when they try and pigeon hole him or twist his words.

                  Definitely Rand is my first choice with Cruz and maybe Rubio rounding out the distant 2nd and 3rd spots, but I’ll take almost any GOP candidate save Christie, Huck or Santorum over the left’s current crop.

                  1. Rubio is horrible, about as establishment as you can get.

                2. “Can anyone tell me what we would actually be getting with Carson in terms of policy?”

                  Well on foreign Policy basically more of the same. He’s not well versed in it but like virtually all tea party darlings is a big believer in American Greatness and the American Empire so he’ll defer to the career bureaucrats at state and General in the Pentagon and keep doing what we have been doing.

                  On social issues expect him to actually try to do something to get around Roe v Wade and roll back gay marriage and don’t be too shocked to see him pushing for laws banning Sharia (whatever that actually means) and weakening the separation of church and state as he is easily as much of a socon as Huckabee and Santorum.

                  On Criminal justice reform and the Drug war, expect him to get in the way of it and expand it respectively.

                  On economics he’s probably the second best option in the race behind Paul. I can see some pushes for serious tax reform and scaling back government spending in a lot of areas, what I question with him is whether he is well enough versed in economics to actually know what he is doing so there is some risk his reach will extend past his abilities here as he tries to do too much.

  2. “*in a world* in which polling is hard and getting harder” [emphasis added]

    I thought you would add something about *one man* stepping forward to blah blah blah.

    1. If only there were some way to make text bold or italic…

      1. If only there were a way for you to soak your head.

  3. I don’t do polls.

  4. The pollsters assume that people answer honestly. And there are also people, like me, who refuse to answer polls.

    1. “We see here, Mr … Tonio, that at 1735 October 29, 2015, you refused to answer a poll. Do you consider that inaction as being … cooperative?”

  5. [insert expostulation of disbelief]

  6. [insert expostulation of disbelief]

  7. [insert obligatory slur against skwerlz]

  8. Emily would have done better.

    1. DON’T TALK ABOU… wait a minute. Carry on.

  9. And this why you actually have elections instead of going by polls to determine what the people supposedly want.

    1. Isn’t one of the definitions of poll an election?

      1. i believe it is. aside from going somewhere vs. talking on the phone for a minute, what makes polls different from elections? maybe people put less thought or care into talking to pollsters? it would be funny if elections were actually just as inaccurate.

  10. Has anybody polled the millenials to see what they think the correct number of millenials in a poll should be?

  11. OT: Maybe this will finally make Father Ted seem funny


    As the battle to decriminalize ? and legalize ? weed in the U.S. continues, another country is taking a giant leap towards eliminating its stringent drug laws. In the near future, Ireland will decriminalize marijuana, cocaine, and heroin possession. Medically-supervised injection rooms will also soon be available to drug users, in order to reduce the stigma of addiction.

    Ireland is following in the footsteps of countries that have started to tire of the fallout from the war on drugs driven by U.S. policy.

    1. I quite liked Father Ted. Maybe it’s a guy thing.

      1. I tried a few episodes. They weren’t really bad but it just kind of dragged.

        1. Fair enough. It’s pretty oddball. I put on comedy as background noise anyway, so it’s not like I can critically deconstruct the show.

          FECK! ARSE! GIRLS!

          1. I wish The Guard was more popular. Plenty of Irish cops taking drugs and spending the night with hookers to go around. What a great film.

            1. “Racism is part of my culture!” Brilliant. Queuing this up for tonight.

              1. Mark Strong steals the best scenes, he’s great. It’s written and directed by John McDonagh, whose brother Martin did In Bruges which is also amazing, if you haven’t seen it.

  12. Headlines on some newsites declaring that a liberal issue was defeated in Ohio are really misleading. MJ Legalization is more of a libertarian issue and in this case, the cronyism involved in the initiative was so over the top, that it’s probably a good thing that it failed.

    1. From what I understand, this defeat is actually a good thing in Ohio, because it apparently created a marijuana cartel for the people behind the initiative.

      People just can’t seem to make something legal, they gotta turn it into a racket.

      1. Yeah, it was a totally bad initiative.

        1. No doubt but the crony cartel was still preferable to the Mexican cartel. I would have liked to have seen prohibition end yesterday and then dealt with the flaws. Hopefully we’ll get something better next time.

          1. I dunno. I’m not sure how I could justify voting for something that gives a legal monopoly to a group of people in what is supposed to be an open and competitive market.

            Maybe a Mexican cartel actually exists in places, and just wipes out their competition through threat of force, but at least I didn’t vote for that.

            Ohio is my home state, but I haven’t lived there for a very long time.

    2. Yeah, I’ve seen it listed as a “conservative” victory yesterday.

      Fuck those guys.

  13. Seattle’s increasingly liberal voters say: Bring it on

    When Seattle politicians first talked about making the city the most progressive in the nation, it seemed like just talk. But the city’s increasingly liberal voters are making it a reality.

    The goal for Seattle, as championed by both of its most recent mayors, is nothing short of making it the No. 1 most progressive city in America.

    To that, city voters Tuesday once again said: Bring it on. More, please.

    Remember, this is a town that’s ravaged by homelessness– despite the progressive policies (sez the mayor while scratching his head) ballooning housing costs, and Capitalist tech workers gobbling up all of Seattle’s precious goodies and pushing out the poor. I wonder how much harder we have to prog to fix these problems?


    1. Progressivisim is nothing but maintaining problems in perpetuity. It captures a permanent bloc of impoverished or otherwise-afflicted voters and their well-meaning but daffy benefactors.

    2. We just keep on progging, no matter what.

    3. How else are they supposed to fix the homelessness and rampant inequality?

  14. Girl stoned to death by goat fuckers.


    1. CNN is trafficking in Islamophobia. They’re no better than Fox!

      1. I like that you used a current hot-button word, ‘trafficking’.

        Just like how libertarians started using ‘sustainable’ when describing government spending policies.

        I approve.

    2. Joyenda, one of two female governors in Afghanistan, said she cried as she watched the video of Rokhshana’s killing.

      “It was really inhumane,” she told CNN.

      …I guess that’s an accurate description. It suggests she has a “humane” way of punishing adultery in mind, but maybe it’s a translation problem.

    3. But hey man, backpacking in Afghanistan makes you a totally international person in adventure travel!

      Ahh “hippie backpackers”

      Yet, “with the right preparations, and a constant ear to the ground once you’re there, travel in Afghanistan is not only a possibility but also incredibly rewarding?Once in Afghanistan, there’s something about the people, the history and even the air that can get in your blood and promise to draw you back again.” The language echoes Lonely Planet’s guide from the 1970s, when the country was a magnet for hippie backpackers, which spoke rapturously of a “vastly appealing country ? endless empty deserts, soaring barren mountains, historic old towns and ruins and best of all the aloof and detached Afghanis.”


      1. I apologize for the buzzfeed link.

      2. For those of you who don’t click through, the article ends with this:

        “We’re just trying to get my daughter back, with her husband,” Lynn Coleman said. “We don’t know any more, but we’re hoping.”

        1. I feel rewarded for sitting on my arse, feckin’ girls, and not tempting fate.

      3. I have a Sister that worked over there twice in the last decade as a private contractor. She said a lot of it that she saw reminded her of the Idaho,Wyoming,Utah,Nevada area. Beautiful but she never left base once because she has never been into that level kind of adventure travel. Even the locals she knew and worked with didn’t travel far from their home villages or family on a lark. Doug Casey in one of his books mentioned having been to Kabul way back before the Soviets came in and started making things more interesting. Said the city itself and hotels in the big city had a lot of the typical European and American college aged – search for the soul, hippie-adventure trekking types that were common at the time in Nepal,Tibet, and India. The region itself was Beautiful, Inspirational and chock full of rugged mountains completely untrammeled and unexploited by westerners of any type. And it stayed that way once the few first intrepid explorers established that there was a 75% chance your body would never be found and an even better odds that you never would be seen again.

  15. Moar OT: Colorado’s Libertarian Moment continues…


    Colorado voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a statewide ballot measure that gives state lawmakers permission, once again, to spend $66.1 million in taxes collected from the sale of recreational marijuana.

    The outcome came as no surprise given its bipartisan backing, and election returns as of 9:40 p.m. showed Proposition BB receiving about 69 percent support, well above the majority-vote threshold, according to returns from counties.

    1. Spend on what?

      1. The measure sends the first $40 million to school construction and $12 million designated for youth and substance-abuse programs. The remaining $14.1 million goes to discretionary accounts controlled by lawmakers.

        Read: cronyism, cronyism, and cronyism.

        If the ballot failed, everyone would have gotten a tax refund.

        The political winds in Colorado never made any fucking sense to me in the decade + that I lived there.

        1. Political winds are fickle and irrational in general.

        2. $12 million designated for youth and substance-abuse programs

          Nothing says cronyism like that.

        3. Well, there’s history on this topic:

          The first part is that this is how the tax was apportioned by the original approval to tax marijuana. School capital expenses, funding anti-drug to keep the kids off the newly legal marijuana, and a little bit going to the state.

          The big reason that this ballot vote passed was the school construction. A lot of schools need updating and new capacity construction as well as to pay off old capital construction loans from the last 10-15 years.

    2. I don’t get it. Without the ballot measure state lawmakers wouldn’t be allowed to spend the tax revenue?

      *haven’t clicked through to article.

      1. Oh, the voters had a chance to get the money back in refunds, but instead chose to let the government spend it on ‘underutilized’ infrastructure.

        Go Colorado go!

        1. libertarian moment

      2. Colorado has a constitutional amendment in force called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. In all cases, if the state collects more revenue than approved by a formula in the amendment (last years budget + inflation + 1 or 2%), they must either refund the money or ask to keep the money.

        1. Sorry, it’s not in all cases. But in general. (There are carve outs for funds spent on emergency needs, like emergency road repairs, natural disasters, and such.)

  16. Huh, Iran is getting soft:

    “The slogan ‘death to America’ is backed by reason and wisdom; and it goes without saying that the slogan does not mean death to the American nation; this slogan means death to the U.S.’s policies, death to arrogance.”


    1. The November 4 anniversary [of the US embassy takeover] was referred to as the “National Day against the Global Arrogance.”

      Right on! FUCK arrogance!

    2. I can easily sympathize with that sentiment, but they are lying. They would kill us all in the blink of an eye if they could get away with it.

      1. I suspect a better translation is “it goes without saying that the slogan does not mean ONLY death to the American nation; this slogan ALSO means death to the U.S.’s policies, death to arrogance.”

    3. If you want a slogan that doesn’t mean death to America, then “Death to America” is probably a poor choice.

      1. “A Light Choking To America!”

      2. A police action to America? A Kinetic Action to America?

        1. A good horse-whipping to America!

  17. Well in the case of the Ohio re-legalization referendum, the polls weren’t asking the same question as the ballot. The polls ask something like “Do you favor legalization?”, the ballot asked something more like “Do you favor legalization even if a monopoly is the only legal producer of this agricultural product? Do you support it even if growing it at home means a government finger up your butt and a near complete forfeiture of your 4th Amendment rights?”

    The poll in that case was ascertaining support for the concept of legalization, not support for the law as written.

    1. It’s interesting how many people (voters) confuse the broad concept of “legalization” with a heavily regulated system with cartel producers while keeping the home cultivation of marijuana illegal.

      Marijuana’s legal here, but SWAT is still busy!

    2. I’m happy watching legalization efforts go down in flames. Decrim or GTFO.

      Luckily they’re attempting to bring an extant, robust, and effectively camouflaged market into the open by offering onerous regulations. It’s like OMWC trying to lure children into his windowless van with promises of steamed broccoli.

      1. It’s like OMWC trying to lure children into his windowless van with promises of steamed broccoli.

        Well there is an obesity crisis.

  18. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.buzznews99.com

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