Elections, Politics, Spring 2016 Articles

Wishful Thinking? Who will win the Presidency?


Although it is only early March, the year is already full of politically significant events. Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in February, and presidential primaries are in full swing. As part of the election conversation, Republicans running for President have argued that the next President should nominate Scalia’s replacement, not current President Obama. Their position, since it lacks constitutional precedent, appears to be based on a gamble that a Republican will win. Is that correct?

Polling far away from the general election, before the nominees from each party have even been settled, isn’t usually predictive. That said, hypothetical general election match-ups suggest Republicans face long odds. Clinton is currently even or doing better against the likely Republican nominees, while Sanders polls even better than Clinton. More ominously, combining polling with betting markets suggests the odds of any Democrat winning is about 2-1.

Nevertheless, pollsters sometimes ask respondents which party they think will win. According to recent national polling, most Americans think that the next President will be a Republican. Do State students agree?

To examine this, PackPoll asked, “How likely is it that the next president after Barack Obama will be a Republican?” Although fewer students expressed an opinion than adults, the pattern of predictions was similar; slightly more expected the winner to be a Republican (38%) than a Democrat (32%).

Interestingly, results were skewed by students’ own partisanship. A majority of self-identified Republicans, for example, thought the next President would be a Republican. Conversely, just 23% of Democrats agreed. Likewise, only 15% of Republicans thought it was unlikely for a Republican to win, but 59% of Democrats said that. Most Independents, meanwhile, were simply unsure.

These patterns reflect what some scholars refer to as “confirmation bias.” Republicans think that a Republican will be the next president, while Democrats think the opposite. Confirmation bias can be defined as the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs, while giving much less consideration to alternative possibilities.

This bias is made worse when considering how strongly students identify with a party — the more intensely partisan students were also more polarized in their predictions. For example, while 70% of “strong” Republicans said the next President would be a Republican, only 45% and 50%, respectively, of ordinary and leaning Republican students felt this way.

Partisans tend to associate with other like-minded partisans, so it is possible that objective information doesn’t make the rounds. Similarly, many people may not want to admit that their first choice for President does not have a reasonable chance or winning – “why would I pick someone I don’t think can win?” Regardless, there seems to be a lot of wishful thinking going on.

NOTE ON METHODOLOGY:  This “flash poll” about took place February 23-25, 2016. The survey was administered over the internet to a random sample of 3,500 NCSU undergraduates, generating a 22% response rate for completed surveys (and 25% for partially completed). Sampling error is +/-3.5% for completed interviews and questions asked of the full sample; it is higher for sub-groups and questions asked of only portions of the full sample.

In addition to sampling error, other forms of error occur in surveys, such as confusion about question wording or the order of questions, but these are not precisely quantifiable. We do not apply post-stratification sample weights to adjust for possible demographic imbalances in this survey because we did not ask about known student demographics such as year in school or gender.

Click here to see a PDF file for the full set of results: Scaliatoplines

Feel free to email us if you have any questions.

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