Benenson's polling lessons from 2012

Benenson's polling lessons from 2012
Obama's pollster-general weighed in on where some public polls went wrong. 

President Obama's lead pollster, Joel Benenson, didn't mince words when talking about why he thinks Republicans lost the presidency at an Inside Politics breakfast hosted by Third Way earlier this week. "If Republicans approach this [election] as if they have a Latino problem, I think they are missing a larger dynamic that's in place right now," said Benenson. "I believe that the Republican Party has a tolerance problem. I think when you define people that look differently than you as illegal aliens and use that term over and over again and talk about deporting them that's a tolerance issue." Why public polling firms like Gallup failed to get some of the demographics right this cycle happened for a variety of reasons, Benenson said. While one of the biggest, according to Benenson, was the outdated questions some pollsters use to determine likely voters, he laid out some other lessons of note from 2012:1) Scale mattered: While public polls concerned themselves with the horse race, Benenson's team was hard at work with the analytics team modeling how best to win over swing voters in battleground states--the only ones that mattered. "We worked with a pretty complete voter list--a voter file that we're updating every two weeks," Benenson says. "We're polling in the battleground universe, not the national polls."

2) Voters rarely change their minds...: The election cycle is a lot longer than it used to be and coverage far more intense in the digital age, which means many likely voters make up their minds early and proceed to tune out the campaign noise until it's time to cast their ballot.

"The race was pretty constant all the way through," Benenson said. "The contours of this election were pretty well set by the end of August. After the 47 percent [video] and after the first debate, this election was pretty unchanged."

Benenson contends that 95 percent of voters had an opinion of Romney coming out of the Republican primaries, so polls showing large shifts in the last week of the race were simply unrealistic. "People don't change their party identity whimsically," he said.

3) get on TV early: The Obama campaign's strategy was always to make the race a forward-looking contrast built on economic vision and values, according to Benenson. "Probably the highest stakes decision that we made was putting all the chips on the table sometime in May—making that decision to go on the air very early," he said. Starting early in May, two ad tracks began running—the first directly targeting Romney's business record.4) Women and the economy: "The other track we engaged in that's gotten a lot less attention because the Bain story became a story in itself because some of the surrogates went off the track in the messaging was that we were also communicating with women on multiple platforms on a range of issues," Benenson said. "The No. 1 issue for women in this election was the economy, followed closely by education."

5) Technology helped drive turnout: And not just Election Day technology. Tech that failed the Obama campaign in 2008 was refined for 2012. "The analytics team had more data at its disposal," Benenson said. And his team worked hand-in-hand with them creating models. Through their collaboration, they came to the conclusion that models factoring in enthusiasm to predict turnout were somewhat dated--a pitfall some public polls fell for.

6) The Tea Party is a myth: It’s nothing more than the Republican base repackaged—the Christian coalition with a new name, argued Benenson. When you accept that fact, he said, the election appears more like a rejection of the tainted Republican image.

"We won moderates by 12 points in this election,” he said. “We won the middle." And while some make much ado about Romney losing the "unchurched" vote, Benenson pointed out that George W. Bush lost that group by the same percentage in 2004. But Obama gained ground among those who say they go to church occasionally—winning 40 percent of that vote in 2012.

7) Misconception of the young electorate: The electorate wasn't dramatically reshaped in 2008, and Obama's win wasn't an anomaly fueled by young voters. And just like in 2008, Benenson said the president didn't need young voters to win in 2012.

"If nobody under the age of 30 had voted in the 2008 election, Barack Obama would've won every state he won except for Indiana and North Carolina, which by the way would've put him at about the equivalent of 332 electoral votes," Benenson said. "That's exactly every state we would've won this time if only people over 30 voted."

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