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Opinion: Polling Latinos has Always Been Controversial

Exit polling is critical to our understanding of the electorate. But when it comes to Latino voters, we need more precise methods.
Laura Lozano,35, volunteers for the Hillary Clinton campaign
Laura Lozano,35, volunteers at the Hillary Clinton campaign's East Las Vegas office, calling Spanish dominant Latino voters.Suzanne Gamboa

The recent controversy over Latino voting in Nevada has brought out a contentious back and forth over whether Hillary Clinton lost Latino voters to Bernie Sanders. First, let’s get partisan politics out of the way. I voted for McCain in 2008. I’ve never voted for anyone named Clinton. The first president I ever voted for was George HW Bush in 1992, and I voted for President Obama in 2012 because he is the closest thing to a moderate Republican in politics today. Until recently I was a registered Republican.

One of my first published academic articles was on how Republicans can reach out to Latinos, titled "Latino Mobilization and Vote Choice in the 2000 Presidential Election." My research grew out of previous scholars who were frustrated by the inability, or unwillingness, of traditional polling firms to take Latino behavioral attitudes into account.

Rodolfo de la Garza, Eaton Professor of Administrative Law and Municipal Science and Professor of International Public Affairs at Colombia University co-authored a report for the Tomás River Institute titled, "Why Pollsters Missed the Latino Vote – Again!" in 1998 where he voiced his decades-long frustration in polling firms.

His student, Louis DeSipio, a professor of Political Science and Chicano Studies at the University of California Irvine, and who is now the president of the Western Political Science Association, wrote a popular book on Latino attitudes stemming from the lack of academic attention to Latino voters. His book, Counting the Latino Vote, was published in 1996 and is a must-read for any scholar of Latino politics who wants to trace the lineage of this controversy over Latino political attitudes.

Louis DeSipio was the chair of my dissertation committee and he introduced me to projects that sought to improve our knowledge about Latinos. In 2004, I got my chance. The Republicans had won the Presidential election and the exit polls were claiming that George Bush had won 44 percent of the Latino vote. I voted for George Bush and, given my research on Republican outreach to Latinos, I was impressed with Bush’s performance. But as we began to look at the numbers, we discovered that the methodology for counting the Latino vote was biasing Hispanic voters for Republicans.

To address this, I co-authored a piece with four others on how to improve the methodology for data collection of “sub-populations” in 2006, titled "Controversies in Exit Polling: Implementing a Racially Stratified Homogenous Precinct Approach." This work stemmed from our experiences in collecting data during a series of projects up to that point, and several others we were working on.

In one instance, I was a co-principal investigator for an exit poll project in Los Angeles for Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles. In that project, we employed the techniques we wrote about in our research and we were successful in collecting a representative sample of Latino voters in Los Angeles.

The latest out of Nevada is part of a long line of controversies over Hispanic voters. When the media was claiming that Hillary Clinton had lost Latino voters to Bernie Sanders, my interest in the numbers piqued. I began to explore the data and noticed some common irregularities, like the fact that despite losing Latino voters, the exit polls said that Hillary won “non-white” voters.

Nevada is where similar controversies have occurred in the recent past. When Democratic Sen. Harry Reid was challenged by GOP candidate Sharron Angle during the Tea Party induced electorate in 2010, the New York Times had predicted that Angle would beat Harry Reid, 50 percent to 47 percent. Instead of losing by 3 percentage points, Harry Reid beat Sharron Angle by 6 percentage points, an almost 10 percent swing away from the predictions.

My look at the data this time around was curious since Latinos make up such a large proportion of non-whites in Nevada. Also, precincts with heavy Latino populations East of the I-15 highway in Clark County were going to Clinton. For instance, a report obtained from researchers in the Clinton campaign show that Precinct 4560, which is 80 percent Latino, was won overwhelmingly by Hillary Clinton. Full disclosure, I have written for Latino Decisions, and two of their principals work for the Hillary campaign as consultants.

Counterpunch published an article citing the director of WCVI claiming that the exit polls were correct and that Bernie Sanders won the Latino vote. In the article, he says, “This whole dispute is baloney. I don’t dispute the Edison numbers at all”.

In a statement provided by the William C Velasquez Institute (WCVI) to NBC News, it says "WCVI concludes the Clinton margin of victory is adequately explained by the large margin of victory Secretary Clinton won among African American voters (77 percent to 23 percent with AA’s representing 13% of the voters). Simply put there is no statistically relevant inconsistency between Edison’s Entry Poll results for Latinos, Whites, and Blacks and the overall election results."

Yet, WCVI's director has been on record questioning the Edison exit polls throughout their existence.

In 2004, WCVI's director challenged the numbers from the George W. Bush election, saying, “It’s simply not so”. He continued, “We have been doing battle over accuracy with the national polls’ suburban biases … notably with the LA Times poll stating Latinos voted in the majority for California’s anti-immigrant ballot initiative … we’re more than ready to do battle again.” In 2004 he also said, “Network and media surveys are not designed to measure Latinos. They are designed to measure the general market.”

Unless Edison has changed their methods, they will continue to get the Latino vote wrong. In 2014, I wrote a similar criticism of exit poll methodology in Texas that was published in the Washington Post’s The Monkey Cage. “Republicans made historic gains across the country on [election day], including significant progress with minority voters,” wrote the National Review. However, upon closer inspection, it was clear that the same methodological problems existed.

As I recently wrote, this is not to say that the exit polls are entirely wrong. There are some possibilities that could help mitigate the exit poll findings for Latinos, like the large number of first-time voters, and the large number of young Latinos. Young people are difficult to predict.

This is also not to say that the exit polls are awful instruments for understanding political behavior. They are critical to our understanding of the electorate, and in a democratic society, this is of the highest importance. Exit polls have also been used in the past to question voting results that could be the result of fraud by the government.

For any academic who believes in the democratic enterprise, exit polls are a valuable tool for holding governments accountable to the opinions of the people. This is precisely why I have taken such interest in polling and Latino voting behavior and why I feel it is important to continue to advocate for more precise methods in understanding Latino voters.

Stephen A. Nuño is an associate professor of political science at Northern Arizona University.

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