Election turnout: Will cranky old “won’t says” deliver an October surprise?

Cranky old geezers.  You know who I’m talking about.  They get a phone call at dinner time and damn well won’t say how they voted – “Won’t says”.

In a live telephone survey (humans talking to humans), there is always a percentage of respondents that will take the survey, but won’t play ball on the political questions.  Partly it’s a matter of principle that it’s a secret ballot and their own business, no one else’s.  Partly they got up on the wrong side of the bed.

My review of some recent telephone surveys indicates about 6% or 7% of respondents will refuse to answer the ballot question.  When I looked further, it was disproportionately older voters who refused, and in one survey, they expressed a high likelihood to vote relative to other respondents.

Thus, that 6% to 7% of refusals might actually represent 8% or 9% of the electorate – the people who actually vote.

(Nanos Research is doing live telephone tracking but it is not releasing its cross tabs or won’t says)

Won’t says don’t really appear that much in online surveys because people that belong to online panels want to share their opinions proactively.

My assumption regarding automated IVR surveys is that those not wishing to play ball with the survey hang up and the refusal is not recorded in the topline.

Based on the live telephone surveys we at least now that, say, 1 in 12 voters are uncooperative in sharing their opinion so that creates the potential for a skew of results.  Not a huge skew, but a bit of a skew.

Let’s say Party X has 30% support in the polls and that’s actually how it plays out.  The 92% of cooperative sample brings 30% of 92% to the voting stations  Then let’s say Party X has 45% support among the 8% of won’t say voters.  Combine that and their vote rises from 30% to 31.2%.  Meanwhile, Party Y also gets 30% among the 92%, if you follow.  But in the 8% won’t say pool, Party Y only yields 20%.  Their overall result drops from 30% to 29.2%.

 (92% of voters) Cooperators % of votes cast
Party X 30.0% 27.6%
Party Y 30.0% 27.6%
 (8% of voters) Won’t Says % of votes cast
Party X 45.0% 3.6%
Party Y 20.0% 1.6%
Final total Change
Party X 31.2% plus 1.2%
Party Y 29.2% minus 0.8%

Therefore, if the won’t says break hard to one party, in this scenario they would cause a two-point differential in the polls, which would be very significant in a close race.  The support was always there, it was just under-reported.

There are other factors that make it difficult to transfer polling results to election returns, which I will write about later, but the issue of won’t says is one that there isn’t a lot of discussion about and may contribute, in part, why we see election night surprises.

Those cranky old won’t says do deliver an important message – they’ll vote any way they please, pollsters be damned.

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