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At-large "pot poll" was actually very accurate

When the results of the Dr. Bronner/DCMJ/PPP poll of Tuesday's at-large DC council race came out, supporters of candidates with weaker showings went to work discrediting the poll.

Photo by nchoz on Flickr.

Were Republican voters under-sampled? Would exclusion of cell phones skew results away from a candidate favored by younger voters? Do we actually expect 69% of registered voters to show up?

These are interesting questions and valid criticisms. But in the end, the poll turned out to be very accurate, almost eerily so.

Let's first compare the election night results with the poll results:


First off, note that the poll gets Perry Redd's and Paul Zuckerberg's election results exactly right, and Michael Brown's small showing justifies his exclusion from the poll. Essentially none of the undecided voters went for Redd, Zuckerberg, or Brown.

Another common criticism of the poll results was that 43% were undecided: with that many undecided, any candidate would seem to have a chance. But a more likely result is that the undecided voters will, in the end, follow the pattern of the already-decided voters. For the four major candidates, we look at this by comparing the election night results to the percent of the decided voters each candidate got in the poll:


Here we see that the results for both Patrick Mara and Anita Bonds nearly exactly match. This tells us that the undecided voters, in the end, broke for Mara and Bonds in exactly the same proportion as the decided voters in the poll had.

On the other hand, when compared with their shares of the decided voters, Matthew Frumin under-performed on election night and Elissa Silverman over-performed. They were, of course, the two most closely-matched candidates, so we can add their totals together to see how the polling predicted their combined performance:

Frumin + Silverman38.97%37%

Their combined share of the decided voters in the polling was within two percentage points of their combined election night totals. The close matches for Mara, Bonds, and Frumin-Silverman show that it's reasonable to presume that the undecideds, even at 43%, will not deviate too strongly from the decideds.

Silverman did get more of the undecided voters than Frumin did, which is evidence of some degree of coalescence. Many would have been happy with either Frumin or Silverman, and perhaps were wavering between the two. When the poll (and other indicators) showed that Silverman was finishing stronger, they gave her their support. From the perspective of the Silverman campaign, though, this was too little and too late.

The first take-away from the numbers is that polling, even in a low-turnout special election in DC, can be very accurate. The second take-away is that polling data which shows one candidate to be stronger than another can lead to support consolidating behind the stronger candidate.

As Patrick Mara reminded us, Tuesday's election was the third one in recent memory in which multiple reform-minded self-styled progressive candidates have split the vote, giving a win to the establishment candidate. (Though others dispute whether Mara can claim the label of "progressive.") Many have wished for a progressive coalition which would rally around a single candidate.

One other thing that this poll has shown is that polling itself does not need to be the exclusive province of the traditional media and the campaigns. If Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps can support a poll, anyone can. We should all thank Adam Eidinger—the longtime radical DC political activist and Dr. Bronner's employee who organized the poll—for showing us that.

There's no reason a group of like-minded activists couldn't commission it's own timely and transparent polls, and to use their results to consolidate support for the strongest favored candidate.

Tom Metcalf came to Washington DC in 2001 to take a job as a government scientist. He lives in Brookland with his wife and two children. Prior to fatherhood, he was a transportation activist in his spare time. 


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Polling will always be useful, but as long as DC elections keep having so many candidates consistently, it would really behoove us to give the electorate a better way to make decisions, namely some kind of preference voting (like instant-runoff voting).

by Gavin on Apr 26, 2013 10:04 am • linkreport

I think the poll did push more undecideds to Silverman from Frumin. I believe the poll also pushed Frumin leaners to Silverman, based on momentum.

I still do not think that Frumin voters would have split evenly to Silverman had he bowed out of the race. However, there is no real way of measuring this.

by William on Apr 26, 2013 10:08 am • linkreport

Yes, the poll was relatively correct. And as was pointed out at the time (I think) lots of "undecideds" just ended up not voting which is common in these kinds of special elections.

by MLD on Apr 26, 2013 10:15 am • linkreport

To your point at the end of the article: how much does a poll cost?


by andy on Apr 26, 2013 10:16 am • linkreport

69% of registered voters clearly did not show up, 10% did. Therefore I assume most of PPP's 43% undecided were low-information voters who did not actually vote.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 26, 2013 10:17 am • linkreport

Hmmmm. Number crunching good.

Of course, that does not matter at all to people who are trying to discredit the poll results.

by Jasper on Apr 26, 2013 10:25 am • linkreport

Related: If the marijuana portions of the poll were similarly accurate, then the Council ought to think long and hard about doing something. 75% support decriminalizing marijuana possession and 63% support legalizing it outright. Our status as a federal colony means they'll have to tread carefully, but to do nothing would be malpractice. Weed now has a much higher approval rating than Mayor Gray does.

by Gavin on Apr 26, 2013 10:28 am • linkreport

@andy, for a polling firm like PPP that uses robocalling, the cost is $2000-$3000, depending on how many "extra" questions (like demographics) are asked. Sort of steep for any one person, but for a dozen or so people splitting the cost it becomes feasible.

In cases of potential vote splitting, one could argue that this would be a more effective use of money than donation of the same amount to a candidate's campaign.

by Tom Metcalf on Apr 26, 2013 10:29 am • linkreport

I think it was marginally useful to compare the results of the "Decided Voters" in the poll with the final outcome of the race. However, the fact that it WAS a low turn out election may have made this possible in this instance and might make it very risky to go by such polling in other circumstances. The poll probably did capture as decided the group most likely to turn out and pull the lever the way the answered the poll. However, in general elections, there are higher turnouts of lower information voters. Hence polls often document (they show rather than lead) a dramatic shift toward a candidate or candidates in the final week or days. Low or lower information voters turn out at higher rates in those circumstances and do vote although a poll even a week earlier would show them as "undecided." Key campaign strategies are built around that fact. Polling that cannot capture that is polling that will be subject to errors. So do you "poll early" to try and consolidate around one candidate? Go ahead. I'm not sure given limited resources and a small constinuency that you or the linke can/will influence an election in any case.

by Tom M on Apr 26, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

Broken clock is right twice a day.

10% turnout.

by charlie on Apr 26, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport


I have heard this before, but just don't buy it. Had Frumin withdrawn, where do you think Frumin voters would have put their vote? I would say a very large percentage goes to Silverman or Mara, with the lions share of those going to Silverman. Is it enough to give her the win? I would guesstimate yes.

I don't see how you envision a typical Frumin voter defecting to Bonds (or even to Mara for that matter)

by Kyle-w on Apr 26, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

I suspect weed has always had a higher approval rating than Mayor Gray.

I don't see why people are surprised the poll was accurate and I don't think the poll itself had a big impact since as mentioned above most undecideds probably didn't vote. I imagine polling has more impact on how people vote in major elections though.

by Alan B. on Apr 26, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport

@kyle-W, if Frumin withdrew, a large number of his "voters" -- which is an extended circle of friends at this point -- would just stay home. That's the reality in low turnout elections.

Also, the same issues with methology apply to the seperate questions on marijuana legalization in the district.

by charlie on Apr 26, 2013 12:45 pm • linkreport

I think the real-life failure of the poll was to show the trend as prime contender away from Mara toward Silverman. It was taken a little too early to show her gains. Many people would have switched to Silverman if they had known she was ahead of Mara.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 26, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

if Frumin withdrew, a large number of his "voters" -- which is an extended circle of friends at this point -- would just stay home. That's the reality in low turnout elections.

Alternatively, in a low turnout election the very engaged (those who always vote) are the ones who vote, and given a slate of similar candidates left to choose from they are likely to pick another candidate and still vote.

by MLD on Apr 26, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport


I can see some of the tax-free municipal bonds fanatics going to other candidates or staying home. Though it seemed like a lot of the Frumin volunteers would have gone to Silverman (based on personal conversations), and quite possibly enough of the voters. Also, if there were enough of a boost to put Silverman ahead of Mara in the poll, that would have given her extra momentum as well.

by Chatham on Apr 26, 2013 12:56 pm • linkreport

Isn't it possible to make some additional inferences about movement based on the three different batches of votes? If I understand correctly there were absentee ballots, early votes & election day votes.

I ask because when I went to the DCBOEE site last night to scrutinize some of the Ward and precinct numbers I was surprised to see that my guy (Frumin) actually had a 1 percent bump up in his vote percentage from election night.

Presuming that was a result of doing better among absentee voters (who presumably voted the earliest) it could indicate Frumin supporters were jumping ship for Silverman and depending on the sample size it could be something measurable?

by TomQ on Apr 26, 2013 1:10 pm • linkreport

One thing I take from the Ward 4 and Ward 5 results is that the young people who are moving in along Georgia Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue are not voting yet.

Many young people also register as Independents, meaning they won't be able to vote for Silverman in the Democratic primary a year from now.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 26, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport

It begs the question to assume that the correlation of Zukerberg and Redd's results imply that neither they nor Brown got any of the votes from the undecided. Indeed, adjusting their votes by the percentage of decided voters, as was done with the other candidates, pushes each of them to the 3.5% mark which I assume was not emphasized because it didn't support the author's assertion that the poll got their results right.

Moreover, I'm not sure what else the author could have expected to remain after the voting percentages for Mara and Bonds closely matched their poll results. By that point, it's tautological that the Frumin-Silverman sum would also have to have matched.

by Craig on Apr 27, 2013 12:49 am • linkreport

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