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Fordham Professor Crunches Numbers on Election Night


Monika McDermott, Ph.D., researches national trends in voter behavior.
Photo by Chris Taggart

If current presidential polls hold steady for Sen. Barack Obama, Monika McDermott, Ph.D., may be looking at an early night on Nov. 4.

But given the historic volatility of the final weeks of a presidential campaign, and with the issue of race a still wild card, the associate professor of political science is not going to hedge her bets.

McDermott, an expert in political psychology and voter behavior, moonlights as a CBS election consultant who interprets exit polls. After crunching the numbers on Election Night, McDermott’s analysis of who voted for whom, and why, will assist news anchors in explaining why Obama or McCain won or lost a state or region. Election 2008 marks McDermott’s fourth presidential election behind the scenes.

Following the 2000 election in which critical Florida exit polls predicted a win for Democratic candidate Al Gore, McDermott admits she is somewhat “gun shy” about being an exit poll enthusiast. Nevertheless, she sees them as “the most reliable science” for predicting voter behavior, which generally produce excellent results.

“Exit polls are one of the few times where you know you are actually talking to people who have voted,” she said. “[Exit voters] are also more likely to be enthusiastic and give honest answers, more honest than someone you just interrupted during dinnertime with a phone call.
“Although [pre-election] polls suggest a win for Obama, I still believe we are in uncharted waters,” McDermott said. “This race has more dynamics than any other at the presidential level, and so many unknowns.”

McDermott has researched the behavior of many voter cohorts, including the Catholic voting bloc. She recently published “Voting for Catholic Candidates: The Evolution of a Stereotype,” in Social Science Quarterly. According to McDermott, Catholics no longer form a monolithic voting bloc as they did during the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s only Catholic president.

In fact, voting among Catholics has tended, in the last two decades, toward Republicanism, she said, largely based on social issues and on the Reagan revolution. (In 1980 many moderate Democrats switched parties to support the 40th president.)

“Catholics tend to be treated as a swing voting bloc by the media, but they’re really a bellwether group,” McDermott said. “They are just as diverse as the rest of America, so sort of as Catholics go, so goes the rest of the nation, or vice versa.”

The key swing blocs in this election, McDermott said, are independents and new voters. A recent nationwide poll showed that voters in the 18-to-29 age bracket support Obama over McCain by a margin of 61 percent to 30 percent. For an Obama camp, this is the upside.

The downside?

“They flake out, and don’t vote,” McDermott said. “According to current polls, if [young people]don’t turn out, then McCain has close to an even shot.”

Recent negative, tactical campaigning in target Republican and independent markets has put off many pundits, but McDermott said such campaigning is historically effective. The Republican Party, McDermott said, has revolutionized the science of voter targeting in the last two decades. Republican campaign strategist Karl Rove, former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush (and now a political analyst) has helped to hone the art of micro-targeting.

In micro targeting, political strategists look at consumer databases and measure how consumer behavior affects voting behavior. For example: Are the owners of Jaguars in a certain suburb more likely to be motivated by a positive or negative ad?

Of course, both parties practice micro targeting. But the Republicans, McDermott said, have perfected it.

“Micro-targeting is genius; it’s absolutely a science,” she said. “[They can] target tiny regions based on data that companies have about every American, know what that person’s concerns probably are, and put the right [political]advertisement in that market.”

Since this year’s election could result in the nation’s first African-American president, the question of racism among voters, is an unprecedented, yet hard-to-measure aspect of voter behavior. A phenomenon known as the Bradley/Wilder effect refers to a discrepancy between voter opinion polls and the election outcome when a white candidate and an African-American candidate run against one another.

In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, narrowly lost his bid for governor of California even though he was several points ahead in the polls. Similar polling discrepancies, sometimes in double digits, showed up in the 1989 elections of L. Douglas Wilder, former governor of Virginia, and David Dinkins, former mayor of New York City.

“There is evidence that the [Bradley] effect is diminishing,” McDermott said, “but there is no doubt that it has potential right now. There are a lot of people out there for whom race is a serious issue, and when they go into the voting booths, who knows?”

With the nation’s demographics in shift, the emphasis on large swing states as the key to victory is changing, McDermott said. On Nov. 4, she will be watching the red states of Virginia and Florida, and the “purple” states of Maine and New Hampshire, as potential game changers. If Obama takes any or all of these states, she said, it could mean an “early evening.”

If not, McDermott points to the Mountain West states of Colorado, Nevada and Montana as ones that might buck a Republican tradition.

“They’re peripheral states you don’t think of,” she said, “but if you put enough of them together, you get an electoral college victory.”

– Janet Sassi


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