Did ACORN Steal the Election?

by John Sides on November 19, 2009 · 9 comments

in Public opinion

A new PPP poll finds that 49% of McCain voters think that ACORN stole the election for Obama. 20% of McCain voters are not sure. Only 31% think that he legitimately won the election. By comparison, 93% of Obama voters believe that he legitimately won the election.

Let’s first acknowledge that this is one poll, with one question wording. The pollster in question, PPP, uses interactive voice response (aka robo-calls), which generate lower response rates than standard polls. A reasonable question, then, is whether this small self-selected sample is—even with sample weighting—skewed towards the kind of politically engaged citizens who are more likely to think and act as partisan or ideologues.

Second, let’s put this finding in some degree of context by considering opinions after the 2000 presidential election. In various polls, we see similarly large divisions among Bush and Gore supporters about the fairness of the process, whether the Supreme Court had partisan motives, who the real winner would have been under a full recount, etc.

Perhaps most relevant is this question from a December 2000 Newsweek poll: “”Will you consider Bush to be a legitimate president, or not?”

Nearly all Republicans (97%) said yes, as compared to 56% of Democrats. Forty percent of Democrats said no.

I am not suggesting that the 2000 controversy and the PPP question about ACORN are equivalent, of course. I just wanted to show that partisans of both stripes can be disgruntled after an election—leaving aside the relative merits of their cause, the empirical basis for their beliefs, etc.

The bigger question is whether suggesting that a president is “illegitimate” has any real consequence. Democratic voters didn’t rebel against Bush after 2000. Indeed, they rallied to his side for a brief time after September 11th.

Moreover, the kinds of Democrats and Republicans who consider an opposition President to be illegitimate—strong partisans, for the most part—would be unlikely to support that President’s policies or vote for him in 4 years even if their doubts about his legitimacy were removed.

We can also question the causal status of suspicions of ACORN. It’s entirely possible that opposition to Obama makes people more likely to suspect ACORN —rather than the other way around. So dispelling this suspicion wouldn’t make anyone support Obama.

Finally, we have to be careful in imputing some tangible political consequence to the responses that respondents give to a PPP robo-call. Simply stating a suspicion doesn’t imply that people will act one it. Moreover, there is a ritualistic quality to this sort of discontent that makes its true impact difficult to discern.

{ 9 comments }

Joel November 19, 2009 at 3:12 pm

John,

The comparison you draw strikes me as especially interesting, for all the reasons you do not wish to pursue. The circumstances could hardly be more different, and the numbers are worse now (maybe even in a statistically significant sense?). Was the methodology of the Newsweek poll less dubious?

Matthew Shugart November 19, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Oh, how I’d like to probe that 7% of Democrats who don’t think Obama is legitimately president!

What are they? Birthers who also happen to be Democrats? Hardcore Hillaryites who think the primaries were rigged?

Jonathan Bernstein November 19, 2009 at 8:46 pm

I think it’s interesting that John, along with (at least) Matt Yglesias and a TPM reporter, thought of the 2000 election. It seems obvious to me that the actual similar one is the 2004 election, and liberal claims that Diebold stole it. What I’m wondering is: do people not know about the 2004 conspiracy theories (which would suggest that liberal paranoia is not equivalent)? Did liberals (conveniently?) forget about it? I’m interested in any reports and/or speculation about it, especially from highly informed liberals.

A little more here:
http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2009/11/that-acorn-poll.html

John Sides November 20, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Joel: I just don’t know how much of the disparity between the PPP and Newsweek polls to attribute to polling methodology versus everything else that made the 2000 and 2008 elections different.

Matt: One wonders!

Jon: I found one poll on whether the 2004 election was stolen, but I am not confident enough in its provenance or methodology to discuss it. I agree that the 2004 conspiracy theories are the better parallel to suspicions about ACORN.

Nate November 20, 2009 at 6:07 pm

The press release indicates that
“PPP conducted a national survey of 1,066 registered voters from November 13th to 15th.”

Notably, the press release does not indicate how the list of 1,066 registered voters was compiled or where the 1,066 voters reside (i.e. aggregate breakdown by State, County, Congressional District, LegislativeDistrict, etc) IMO, without this BASIC information it is not possible to make any conclusions whatsoever about the “accuracy” of this poll.

Nate November 20, 2009 at 6:11 pm

The press release indicates that
“PPP conducted a national survey of 1,066 registered voters from November 13th to 15th.”

Notably, the press release does not indicate how the list of 1,066 registered voters was compiled or where the 1,066 voters reside (i.e. aggregate breakdown by State, County, Congressional District, Legislative District, etc) IMO, without this BASIC information it is not possible to make any conclusions whatsoever about the “accuracy” of this poll.

Kenneth Almquist November 20, 2009 at 7:21 pm

“A new PPP poll finds that 49% of McCain voters think that ACORN stole the election for Obama”

I disagree with this interpretation of the results.

The poll asked, “Do you think that Barack Obama legitimately won the Presidential election last year, or do you think that ACORN stole it for him?” The implicit assumption included in this question is that Obama legitimately won the election unless ACORN stole the election. Thus someone who doesn’t think that ACORN stole the election, but does think that Obama stole the election by falsely claiming to be a natural born citizen, has no way to express that view. I suspect that such a person, confronting this question, would be likely to select “ACORN stole it” rather than indicating that they thought Obama legitimately won the election. Therefore, I see no basis for claiming that any particular percentage of the respondents actually believe that ACORN stole the election.

I do think that the poll tells us that a lot of people don’t think that Obama legitimately won the election.

I don’t know anything about Public Policy Polling. Given that they made an obvious error like this, that even I (a computer scientist with no background in polling or survey methods) can spot, I have to wonder what else they may have gotten wrong.

Toast November 20, 2009 at 7:52 pm

As a liberal, I was horrified after the 2004 election when many of my ideological kin started running around claiming Bush “stole” the 2004 election. Not only was there no evidence to support such a claim – “irregularities” plague every election – but by lobbing it out there so carelessly they were diluting the powerful truth that the Supreme Court *really did* steal the 2000 election for Bush.

Dan Tarrant November 21, 2009 at 11:37 pm

A fun way to annoy conservatives is to “admit” that ACORN stole the election and that you’re damn glad they pulled it off!

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