Are Unlikely Voters a Potential Key to a White Victory?

New polls show Bill White six and seven points away from Rick Perry—could it be changes to likely voters?
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Campaign workers are a bit like those people who celebrate every holiday. “United Nations Day!” they’ll say. “Party at my place!” Or in the case of political junkies “A new poll—this changes everything!” Most of the time it doesn’t. But two recent polls might be showing a trend, not obvious at first glance, but with big implications.

Friday’s Rasmussen poll and Saturday’s poll from the state’s major newspapers don’t initially grab your eye. Democratic challenger Bill White isn’t ahead, or even tied with Gov. Rick Perry. Rasmussen’s latest results have White trailing Perry by six percentage points (Perry with 48 percent, White with 42) while the newspaper poll showed White trailing by seven points (Perry with 46 percent, White with 39.) Both polls don’t have obvious good news for either side. Perry has yet to break fifty percent, which makes him look vulnerable, but as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports, 49 percent of those polled were happy with the direction of the state.  On the other hand, White still trails by a sizable margin, although the results did prompt Rasmussen to shift the race from “Solid Republican” to “Leans Republican” on their scorecard.

But the results might mean more good new for Democrats. We’ve already seen polls show a close race—an earlier UT/Texas Tribune poll also showed a six point gap and the virtual tie in the Texas Watch poll. Those polls, however, look at registered voters more generally. But the Rasmussen and newspaper polls, which determine who are “likely voters,” may also show that would-be White supporters are warming up to actually casting a ballot. It may seem obvious, but Texans have to make two choices on Election Day. The first isn’t who to vote for—it’s whether to vote.

Pollsters doesn’t necessarily survey anyone in the state registered. Instead, some try to predict who will actually turn out on election day and ask those deemed “likely” to vote. Friday’s poll surveyed 500 these likely voters. The logic makes sense. If you’re trying to figure out which candidate will win, it’s no use to know who people will vote for if they aren’t actually going to vote. It’s also a fairly common practice—in addition to Rasmussen, others like Public Policy Polling and Gallup also target “likely voters.”

But it can be tough to identify these people. According to the American Association for Public Opinion Research—yes I’m a nerd—most polls use questions about past behavior (“Have you voted in prior elections?”) and questions about interest (“Are you following the election closely?”) to decide who is a “likely voter.” While you can’t do much to change your past voting history, enthusiasm plays a big role in making you one of these “likely” people. If you keep hearing that Democrats are doomed and Republicans are going to be coming out of the woodwork, you may figure you’re better off watching cartoons.

But enthusiasm can change. Quickly.

For instance, say a slew of polls came out a couple weeks ago showing a more competitive race—the very thing that happened earlier this month. That can get more Democratic voters enthused—and get them more excited about voting. We can’t be sure, obviously, but we know that likely voter models get more accurate as we near election day.

You don’t have to take my word for it—smart professors at New York University and Oxford University both made the same argument in a rather dour paper entitled “Likely (And Unlikely) Voters and the Assessment of Campaign Dynamics.” (If you’re dying to read it, it’s in the 2004 Winter edition of Public Opinion Quarterly.)

It may be hard for the wonk-y people to believe, but most people simply aren’t thinking about politics in August, let along June. As we get closer to Election Day, state Democrats may be able to get more of their supporters excited. Nationwide, it’s hard not to see that Republicans are more excited about races than Democrats, which make them better informed and more likely to turn out. But that doesn’t mean things can’t shift in Texas.

If Democrats can get their supporters more revved up, we might start to see more polls narrowing the gap. And as I’ve said before, poll results carry their own electoral weight. A poll showing Perry far ahead can actually help the governor move farther ahead. And polls like these last two can potentially make the race closer.