Forecasting Elections: Voter Intentions versus Expectations



Most pollsters base their election projections off questions of voter intentions, which ask “If the election were held today, who would you vote for?” By contrast, we probe the value of questions probing voters’ expectations, which typically ask: “Regardless of who you plan to vote for, who do you think will win the upcoming election?” We demonstrate that polls of voter expectations consistently yield more accurate forecasts than polls of voter intentions. A small-scale structural model reveals that this is because we are polling from a broader information set, and voters respond as if they had polled twenty of their friends. This model also provides a rational interpretation for why respondents’ forecasts are correlated with their expectations. We also show that we can use expectations polls to extract accurate election forecasts even from extremely skewed samples.


I. Introduction


Since the advent of scientific polling in the 1930s, political pollsters have asked people whom they intend to vote for; occasionally, they have also asked who they think will win. Our task in this paper is long overdue: we ask which of these questions yields more accurate forecasts. That is, we evaluate the predictive power of the questions probing voters’ intentions with questions probing their expectations. Judging by the attention paid by pollsters, the press, and campaigns, the conventional wisdom appears to be that polls of voters’ intentions are more accurate than polls of their expectations.


Yet there are good reasons to believe that asking about expectations yields more greater insight. Survey respondents may possess much more information about the upcoming political race than that probed by the voting intention question. At a minimum, they know their own current voting intention, so the information set feeding into their expectations will be at least as rich as that captured by the voting intention question. Beyond this, they may also have information about the current voting intentions—both the preferred candidate and probability of voting—of their friends and family. So too, they have some sense of the likelihood that today’s expressed intention will be changed before it ultimately becomes an election-day vote. Our research is motivated by idea that the richer information embedded in these expectations data may yield more accurate forecasts.


We find robust evidence that polls probing voters’ expectations yield more accurate predictions of election outcomes than the usual questions asking about who they intend to vote for. By comparing the performance of these two questions only when they are asked of the exact same people in exactly the same survey, we effectively difference out the influence of all other factors. Our primary dataset consists of all the state-level electoral presidential college races from 1952 to 2008, where both the intention and expectation question are asked. In the 77 cases in which the intention and expectation question predict different candidates, the expectation question picks the winner 60 times, while the intention question only picked the winner 17 times. That is, 78% of the time that these two approaches disagree, the expectation data was correct. We can also assess the relative accuracy of the two methods by assessing the extent to which each can be informative in forecasting the final vote share; we find that relying on voters’ expectations rather than their intentions yield substantial and statistically significant increases in forecasting accuracy. An optimally-weighted average puts over 90% weight on the expectations-based forecasts. Once one knows the results of a poll of voters expectations, there is very little additional information left in the usual polls of voting intentions. Our findings remain robust to correcting for an array of known biases in voter intentions data.


The better performance of forecasts based on asking voters about their expectations rather than their intentions, varies somewhat, depending on the specific context. The expectations question performs particularly well when: voters are embedded in heterogeneous (and thus, informative) social networks; when they don’t rely too much on common information; when small samples are involved (when the extra information elicited by asking about intentions counters the large sampling error in polls of intentions); and at a point in the electoral cycle when voters are sufficiently engaged as to know what their friends and family are thinking.


Our findings also speak to several existing strands of research within election forecasting. A literature has emerged documenting that prediction markets tend to yield more accurate forecasts than polls (Wolfers and Zitzewitz, 2004; Berg, Nelson and Rietz, 2008). More recently, Rothschild (2009) has updated these findings in light of the 2008 Presidential and Senate races, showing that forecasts based on prediction markets yielded systematically more accurate forecasts of the likelihood of Obama winning each state than did the forecasts based on aggregated intention polls compiled by Nate Silver for the website One hypothesis for this superior performance is that because prediction markets ask traders to bet on outcomes, they effectively ask a different question, eliciting the expectations rather than intentions of participants. If correct, this suggests that much of the accuracy of prediction markets could be obtained simply by polling voters on their expectations, rather than intentions.


These results also speak to the possibility of producing useful forecasts from non-representative samples (Robinson, 1937), an issue of renewed significance in the era of expensive-to-reach cellphones and cheap online survey panels. Surveys of voting intentions depend critically on being able to poll representative cross-sections of the electorate. By contrast, we find that surveys of voter expectations can still be quite accurate, even when drawn from non-representative samples. The logic of this claim comes from the difference between asking about expectations, which may not systematically differ across demographic groups, and asking about intentions, which clearly do. Again, the connection to prediction markets is useful, as Berg and Rietz (2006) show that prediction markets have yielded accurate forecasts, despite drawing from an unrepresentative pool of overwhelmingly white, male, highly educated, high income, self-selected traders.


While questions probing voters’ expectations have been virtually ignored by political forecasters, they have received some interest from psychologists. In particular, Granberg and Brent (1983) document wishful thinking, in which people’s expectation about the likely outcome is positively correlated with what they want to happen. Thus, people who intend to vote Republican are also more likely to predict a Republican victory. This same correlation is also consistent with voters preferring the candidate they think will win, as in bandwagon effects, or gaining utility from being optimistic. We re-interpret this correlation through a rational lens, in which the respondents know their own voting intention with certainty and have knowledge about the voting intentions of their friends and family.


Our alternative approach to political forecasting also provides a new narrative of the ebb and flow of campaigns, which should inform ongoing political science research about which events really matter. For instance, through the 2004 campaign, polls of voter intentions suggested a volatile electorate as George W. Bush and John Kerry swapped the lead several times. By contrast, polls of voters’ expectations consistently showed the Bush was expected to win re-election. Likewise in 2008, despite volatility in the polls of voters’ intentions, Obama was expected to win in all of the last 17 expectations polls taken over the final months of the campaign. And in the 2012 Republican primary, polls of voters intentions at different points showed Mitt Romney trailing Donald Trump, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich and then Rick Santorum, while polls of expectations showed him consistently as the likely winner.


We believe that our findings provide tantalizing hints that similar methods could be useful in other forecasting domains. Market researchers ask variants of the voter intention question in an array of contexts, asking questions that elicit your preference for one product, over another. Likewise, indices of consumer confidence are partly based on the stated purchasing intentions of consumers, rather than their expectations about the purchase conditions for their community. The same insight that motivated our study—that people also have information on the plans of others—is also likely relevant in these other contexts. Thus, it seems plausible that survey research in many other domains may also benefit from paying greater attention to people’s expectations than to their intentions.


The rest of this paper proceeds as follows, In Section II, we describe our first cut of the data, illustrating the relative success of the two approaches to predicting the winner of elections. In Sections III and IV, we focus on evaluating their respective forecasts of the two-party vote share. Initially, in Section III we provide what we call naïve forecasts, which follow current practice by major pollsters; in Section IV we product statistically efficient forecasts, taking account of the insights of sophisticated modern political scientists. Section V provides out-of-sample forecasts based on the 2008 election. Section VI extends the assessment to a secondary data source which required substantial archival research to compile. In Section VII, we provide a small structural model which helps explain the higher degree of accuracy obtained from surveys of voter expectations. Section VIII characterizes the type of information that is reflected in voters’ expectation, arguing that it is largely idiosyncratic, rather than the sort of common information that might come from the mass media. Section IX assesses why it is that people’s expectations are correlated with their intentions. Section VI uses this model to show how we can obtain surprisingly accurate expectation-based forecasts with non-representative samples. We then conclude. To be clear about the structure of the argument: In the first part of the paper (through section IV) we simply present two alternative forecasting technologies and evaluate them, showing that expectations-based forecasts outperform those based on traditional intentions-based polls. We present these data without taking a strong position on why. But then in later sections we turn to trying to assess what explains this better performance. Because this assessment is model-based, our explanations are necessarily based on auxiliary assumptions (which we spell out).


Right now, we begin with our simplest and most transparent comparison of the forecasting ability of our two competing approaches.


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