Why do so many people say they voted for Obama when they didn't?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 18 2009 6:39 PM

Lies, Damn Lies, and Votes for Obama

Why do so many people say they voted for the president when they didn't?

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

Even as Americans grow skeptical of various Democratic policies, President Obama's approval rating hovers at a robust 63 percent. People like him so much, in fact, that many say they voted for him—even when they didn't.

In the 2008 election, Obama won 53 percent of the votes; John McCain got 46 percent. But two new polls, conducted by the Wall Street Journal/NBC and the New York Times/CBS, show Obama winning by a much wider margin.

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When respondents were asked by the WSJ whom they voted for in the 2008 presidential elections, 41 percent said they voted for Obama, compared with 32 percent for McCain. Factor out the 18 percent who said they didn't vote, and you've got Obama beating McCain by 11 points, 50 percent to 39 percent.

The gap in the New York Times poll is even wider. In it, 48 percent of respondents said they voted for Obama, compared with 25 percent for McCain. Again, subtract the 19 percent who say they didn't vote, and you've got Obama winning by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, with 60 percent to McCain's 32 percent.

What gives? Are people really lying about having voted for Obama?

Yes, they are. It's common for more people to claim they voted for a president than actually did. In the 1930s, George Gallup found that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was more popular in post-election polls than he was on Election Day. The same was true after the 2000 election, in which George W. Bush lost the popular vote. By 2004, polls showed Bush having won in a landslide.

But the disparity between declared Obama voters and actual Obama voters is especially wide. The gap is usually in the single digits, and it waxes and wanes with the president's popularity. The New York Times poll, conducted periodically since Obama's inauguration, shows the gap between Obama and McCain steadily growing. In February, he led McCain 42 percent to 28 percent. In April, it was 43-25. By June, his lead had grown to 48-25. "Even by the standards of historical numbers, that's a large gap," says Adam Berinsky, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The main explanation for the gap, say pollsters, is people who didn't vote at all saying they did. These people tend to say they picked the winning candidate. Just look at the Times and Journal polls, where about 80 percent of respondents said they voted in the 2008 election. In fact, turnout was about 61 percent. (A 20 percent gap is pretty standard.) Pollsters attribute the disparity to the social discomfort of having to admit, even to a stranger on the phone, that you didn't vote. Exacerbating the discomfort is the fact that the question "Who did you vote for?" usually comes at the end of a survey—after you've just spent 30 minutes telling the pollster what you think of Obama. What are you going to do, admit you never voted?

Another reason is forgetfulness. If you've read this far, you're probably pretty interested in politics, and maybe you have indelible memories of Election Day 2008 seared into your hippocampus for all time. But most Americans don't pay close attention to politics. Plus, people do a poor job of reporting past behaviors. Studies show that patients have a hard time remembering when they visited the doctor, let alone what their doctor told them. Same with voting. Say you normally vote but can't quite remember whether you voted in the most recent election. You might well say you did. And because you like how Obama's doing so far, you figure you probably did vote for him.

Then there's the group of McCain voters that either regrets their pick or would rather not admit it to a pollster. They might feign forgetfulness, which would account for the 7 percent of respondents who say they voted for "someone else" or won't say for whom. Or they might just say they picked Obama. But outright dishonesty probably accounts for little of the gap.

The numbers could be skewed for structural reasons. As in any poll, self-selection is inevitable. The people who agree to speak with a pollster about politics for half an hour are going to be relatively engaged. That partially explains the turnout gap. But it doesn't account for Obama's advantage. (Unless people who voted for McCain are less likely to want to talk about the current state of the country—but that seems like a stretch.) Bias seems implausible. (See the New York Times' methodology here.) Another possible explanation is statistical error, which is plus or minus three points in the NYT and WSJ polls. But again, that doesn't explain the size of the gap.

Chances are, Obama's landslide won't last forever. Retroactive vote reporting tends to be a proxy for popularity. Just ask George W. Bush. In a 2006 NYT poll, more people said they voted for John Kerry in 2004 than voted for Bush. Obama's numbers could drop, too. "Say health care and financial reform hit a wall," says Berinsky. "I think you're going to see some dampening of these numbers."

The takeaway lesson, though, is that asking someone whom they voted for may not be the best predictor of future behavior. Polls tend to ask for voting history in order to provide cross-tabs: How many McCain voters support Obama's health plan? How many Obama voters think he's doing a bad job? But if the numbers of Obama and McCain voters are themselves hazy, then maybe they're a poor barometer for other opinions. A better metric could be party affiliation or whether someone currently supports or opposes Obama. At least that's easier to remember.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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