What Are South Carolina Independents Trying to Tell Us?

SurveyUSA Breaking News - 01/24/08 05:28 PM


There are enough whitecaps in the SC water to tip a pollster canoe. Consider:

  • The number of self-described Independents in the SurveyUSA SC Democratic Primary poll released today is up from 7% in December to 16% today.
  • The number of self-described Republicans in the SC Democratic Primary poll released today is up from 4% in December to 8% today.

What happened between then and now? The South Carolina Republican Primary.

Unique to 2008, South Carolina’s two primaries are not held on the same date. South Carolina’s primaries are “open.” Democrats were free to vote in last Saturday’s Republican Primary. Republicans are free to vote in this Saturday’s Democratic primary.

However, voters in SC may only vote once. Not twice. If you voted last week, you may not vote this week. But if you did not vote last week, even if you are a Republican, you may vote this week, in the Democratic Primary.

Therein the polling challenge lies.

Much more than in other states …

… which hold simultaneous primaries, SurveyUSA this week is in a perilous pollster limbo, of relying on those South Carolinians who voted last Saturday to tell us that they in fact did. We eliminate those who have already voted, and do not ask them whether they are likely to vote this Saturday, nor do we ask them which Democrat they might prefer. However, those registered voters who did not vote last Saturday, we do ask on a scale of 1 to 10 how likely they are to vote this Saturday. The “9′s” and “10′s” are judged by SurveyUSA to be likely and are permitted to hear the “who will you vote for question.” Those who answer “8″ or lower, on the 1-to-10 scale, are treated differently.

This would make no difference if the Republicans and Independents who show up in today’s SurveyUSA’s polling data vote the same way as the registered Democrats. But they do not. The Independents and the Republicans vote disproportionately for John Edwards.

  • Among just the registered Democrats in SurveyUSA’s sample, Obama leads Clinton by 19 points.
  • But among the Independents, Obama and Edwards are effectively tied, with Clinton a dozen points back.
  • Among the admittedly tiny handful of Republicans who tell us they will vote in the Democratic Primary, Edwards leads Clinton and Obama.

The side effect of this possibly real and possibly exaggerated enthusiasm by Independents and Republicans, is that the percentage of African Americans who qualify as likely voters in SurveyUSA’s SC Democratic Primary pool has decreased from 54% in SurveyUSA’s sample six weeks ago to 42% today. The percentage of white likely voters is up from 44% six weeks ago to 55% today.

Counter-intuitive? Absolutely. But, alas, there it is in the data.

Are black voters somehow newly discouraged? Unlikely. More likely the reverse: that some whites are newly energized. Or, that some whites are newly energized to tell pollsters that they are energized.

Whether these whites are motivated with the best of intentions, or motivated by the worst that is within us, remains to be seen.

Could John Edwards finish ahead of Hillary Clinton on Saturday?

It depends how many Independents and how many Republicans show up to dilute the core Democratic vote that at present goes 5:3 for Obama over Clinton, and 5:2 for Obama over Edwards.

Could what SurveyUSA sees here be a pollster mirage? Perhaps. Competing pollsters show the spread between 2nd place Clinton and 3rd place Edwards differently. At this hour.

  • Zogby (today, 1/24/08) has Clinton 5 points ahead of Edwards.
  • Clemson University (today, 1/24/08) has Clinton 3 points ahead of Edwards.
  • Rasmussen (today, 1/24/08) has Clinton 11 points ahead of Edwards.
  • Mason-Dixon (today, 1/24/08) has Clinton 11 points ahead of Edwards.
  • SurveyUSA (today, 1/24/08) has Clinton 7 ahead of Edwards.

There are many possibilities. Here are several:

  • There is a genuine white backlash to the racial rhetoric in South Carolina. Some whites, possibly white males, may be newly motivated to vote for the white male Democrat in a way they were not a few weeks ago. In this scenario, Edwards’ surge is real. He may challenge for 2nd place.
  • John Edwards’ message has newfound appeal to a broad coalition of South Carolina voters. Managing to stay largely above the fray in the contentious Democratic debate, Edwards has managed to appear Presidential, and voters of all registrations are genuinely moving to his side. Again in this scenario, the surge is real and Edwards has momentum.
  • Everyone in South Carolina is fed up with the Clinton-Obama bickering, having nothing uniquely to do with race or with John Edwards. In this scenario, voters are turning to Edwards to punish Clinton and Obama more than out of genuine regard for Edwards. Even if this is the explanation, the Edwards uptick would be real.
  • Or, there is “noise” in SurveyUSA’s poll, and in the polls from others, triggered by the week-long hiatus between Republican and Democratic voting. While Edwards has a strong group of core supporters in South Carolina and elsewhere, the number of Independents and Republicans who show up in SurveyUSA’s likely voter pool is overstated, and Clinton will finish comfortably ahead of Edwards.

We’ll know the Primary results late on Saturday.

That will tell us something superficial:

  • Who wins.
  • How accurate the polls are.

But the much more important learning — how America is reacting to the white-hot rhetoric between the black man, the white woman and her past-POTUS spouse — may not be known, or fully understood, for quite some time. By then, the Democratic Party may have torn itself apart much as some feel the Republican party already has.

Who ultimately benefits from this is unclear.

SurveyUSA will gather a little more data in South Carolina and Florida tonight and see if it makes us any smarter.


Relevant charts follow (click the charts to enlarge them, if they appear pixelated):

  • Independent voters in South Carolina Democratic Primary tracked:


  • Republican voters in South Carolina Democratic Primary tracked:
  • sc-democratic-primary-gop-voters-012408.JPG

  • Democrats in South Carolina Democratic Primary tracked:
  • sc-democratic-primary-dem-voters-tracked-012408.JPG

  • Whites in South Carolina Democratic Primary tracked:
  • sc-dem-primary-white-vote-tracked-012408.JPG

  • Blacks in South Carolina Democratic Primary tracked:
  • sc-dem-primary-black-votes-tracked-012408.JPG

    Interactive tracking graphs, such as the above, are available on all SurveyUSA election tracking polls. Click on the “Triangle T” to access them.

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