Death of the Early Voting Time Capsule Theory [...]

One argument that has been made by Sanders supporters is that the wins Hillary has been getting are actually remnants of previous popularity. The theory goes like this:

  • Many people used to be for Hillary, and they voted early, locking in their votes.
  • As the race evolved more people became Sanders fans.
  • By election day, he actually had a majority of people on his side. But all the people who had already voted early skewed the results. If they could have voted day-of they’d vote for Sanders!
  • In this way, the early voting results are a “time capsule”, a snapshot of the race before Bernie-mentum. (Interesting to note that this is yet another creative way to tell us why a set of Democratic votes don’t count, but leave that aside).

Here’s Huffington Post Blogger Seth Abramson in a well-circulated post, explaining that the reason caucuses go for Bernie is not because they are vote-suppressing events designed to multiply activist influence, but because, you know, the time capsule effect:

That’s right — in each state, most of the early primary voting occurs before the candidates have aired any commercials or held any campaign events. For Bernie Sanders, this means that early voting happens, pretty much everywhere, before anyone knows who he is. Certainly, early voting occurs in each state before voters have developed a sufficient level of familiarity and comfort with Sanders to vote for him.

But on Election Day — among voters who’ve been present and attentive for each candidate’s commercials, local news coverage, and live events — Sanders tends to tie or beat Clinton.

In fact, that’s the real reason Sanders does well in caucuses.

It’s not because caucuses “require a real time investment,” as the media likes to euphemistically say, but because caucuses require that you vote on Election Day rather than well before it.

It’s so simple, right?

He goes on to show that early voting favors Clinton, which basically proves it, right?

Consider: on Super Tuesday 3, because early voting is always reported first, Clinton’s margins of victory were originally believed to be 25 points in Missouri, 30 points in Illinois, and 30 points in Ohio. Missouri, which doesn’t have conventional early voting, ended up a tie. Illinois ended up with a 1.8% margin for Clinton (after being a 42-point race in Clinton’s favor just a week earlier) and Ohio a 13.8% margin.

Any one of us could do the math there. And yet the media never did.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to “do the math” — you actually have to do the right math. And as we say in statistics, the problem is that early voters almost certainly differ from average voters in more than one dimension. The alternate explanation for early votes favoring Clinton might simply be that the sort of people that would vote for Clinton are also the sort of people who vote early.

In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to support this second, non-time-capsule theory. Early voters tend to be older. They tend to be female. In fact, voters under thirty comprise only 7 percent of early voters whereas over-65 voters comprise over 40 percent of early votes.1 For all these reasons it’s likely that there is no “time capsule” at work here, just demographics.

But that’s statistics, and most people have a hard time evaluating intersecting predictors. What I wanted to call people’s attention to is a much clearer nail in the coffin of the time capsule theory: New York did not have early voting, and it was a blowout.

I think we can safely put this theory to bed now.

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