Welcome to Codebook, a newsletter that decodes our world through polling and research. This edition—"Ask Away!"—is a monthly feature rounding up the best reader questions.
Hooray for a springtime mailbag!
Thank you to everyone who submitted something. If you want to get a question in for a future Ask Away, there are a few ways to do it.
1. Comment on Bulletin under any post. I see all the comments!
2. Comment on a post on my Kristen Soltis Anderson writer Facebook page or send a message to that profile. I read your notes!
3. Reply to me on other social media platforms (Instagram and Twitter: @ksoltisanderson).
On to your questions!
First question is very appropriate as we also move into "likely voter" season...from Michael H. on Facebook!
Let me back up and explain what "likely voter" season is anyways (besides a term I sort of just made up). Generally, political pollsters look at three different groups of people: adults, registered voters, or likely voters.
"Adults" is the easy one. You either are eighteen years old or you aren't. We have extensive Census data to tell us exactly what the population of adults should look like demographically, so there's effectively no guesswork needed for a pollster who wants to ensure they've got the right composition of respondents.
The downside of a survey of "adults" is it isn't as politically relevant. Ultimately, if you're not a registered voter, you're not going to be voting in an election. If I am trying to figure out who will win an election, I really ought to only look at those who are eligible to participate in that election.
"Registered Voters" is a little more complicated but still mostly straightforward. You can determine that someone is a registered voter in one of two ways. The first is to draw your sample from a list of people who are registered voters. These lists are public record and pollsters can purchase these lists and then randomly sample off of them. The other way to do it is via self-report, meaning you just ask people if they are or aren't registered to vote. It's not perfect, but it gets the job done.
Who is or isn't a registered voter is a little more fluid than who is or isn't an adult. People move from state to state, and maybe their voter registration isn't up-to-date with where they currently live. New people become registered to vote all the time, in ways that are less predictable than the way new people become adults (by turning eighteen!). The parties keep trying to re-shape the pool of registered voters to be more favorable to their side, so it's a little bit of a moving target.
But it's still more cut-and-dry than "likely voters", our final category. Whether you are a "likely voter" is not about your concrete reality (your age or voter registration status) but about your future behavior. Of course, the reason a pollster would want to study "likely voters" is obvious; if polls are counting too many people who aren't actually going to participate in an election, they're going to get a skewed result. Not all registered voters turn out, and some are more likely to turn out than others.
The question then is: how do pollsters make this determination? And to your question, Michael H., this is where some "educated guesswork" comes into play. Pollsters can narrow things down to a pool of "likely voters" in a few different ways:
Ask people how likely they are to vote. If you say you're likely to vote, great, you're a "likely voter". If you say you're not (or you're only "somewhat likely" or whatever scale the pollster has picked), you're not. Except people aren't always great about predicting this about themselves.
Look at people's past vote history alone. In political consultant parlance, maybe you want people who are "three of four", meaning they've voted in three of the last four elections. When a pollster is pulling together a poll sample, maybe this means they are only selecting phone numbers on the list that are associated with people who have a demonstrated past track record of consistently voting.
Use a modeled turnout score. This is a more sophisticated version of looking at past vote history, but rather than involving a strict cut-off at three of four of the last elections or something like that, it means you've generated a score for every voter of how likely you think they are to vote. (We do this at my firm.) Lots of factors can go into this score, though usually the biggest factor is still past vote history.
However - and here's where things get really fun - we also know that in any given election, some unlikely voters will vote. There will be new voters, there will be people who haven't voted in years but are newly fired up, there will be people who actually are reliable voters but because they moved to a new state their voting history isn't always matched up with their registration record. At my firm, our "secret sauce" is that we try not to look at likely voters with a harsh cut-off but by using those modeled scores to figure out what we think the electorate is likely to look like...including a few of those unlikely voters who might surprise us.
Up next, from longtime Friend of Codebook Mark S.:
Good question. I've begun doing a lot more polling via text-to-web, meaning texting people a link to a survey and asking them to participate. This gives you a good blend of some of the upsides of phone polling (you aren't just limited to surveying people who are in these online panels) with online polling (much cheaper than live interviews and phone calls). The downside, of course, is that is is really annoying (SORRY EVERYONE) and you still have biases in who does text and who doesn't.
Landlines don't cover many households anymore. Cells are challenging to call. Response rates are awful. People ignore texts or get annoyed when you send them. Online polls have problems with panels that aren't super representative. You can work around these problems, but it's expensive and time consuming to do so.
I tend to like blending different methods if I can. Or, to answer your second question, I'd sure love a mind-reading technology that lets me figure out what people think about politics without them having to respond to a text at all!
Next question comes via Instagram Stories from old debate buddy Josh:
Spicy question. While I have not done specific Ohio polling on this issue, I'm not sure how much of a lift it will give. (It's worth noting that, as of press time, this endorsement is still expected, but not a done deal.) Donald Trump remains popular among Republican voters, but his endorsement track record isn't perfect, so this is a valid question to pose.
The datapoint I've got that speaks to this the most comes from our Echelon Insights survey in February where we did something called a "conjoint analysis". Basically, we presented respondents with two hypothetical candidates and then asked respondents to choose. Market researchers do this a lot around, say, product features. "Which would you rather have, a car with four extra cupholders or a car with two extra USB ports?" or whatever. You ask a lot of different combinations and you see which feature tends to "win" the most often.
We did this for primaries. We found that Trump's endorsement gives a boost when it comes in combination with the endorsement other local GOP officials.
All of which makes this letter from a collection of Ohio Republican leaders asking Trump not to endorse Vance particularly interesting. Who knows how much any of it will matter in this particular contest, but it perhaps the non-endorsement from Ohio GOP folks blunts any value the Trump endorsement alone may have provided. Anyhow, we will know in just a few weeks!
Onward to Dustin M.'s question!
OOOOOOK. As you may or may not have heard, I did a focus group for The New York Times as part of an ongoing series looking at different slices of the American electorate. In January, I studied Republican voters' views on January 6th, while my Democratic polling counterpart Margie Omero did a group of Democrats on the same topic. In February, I moderated a group of young women on their views about family, career, gender and feminism. And in March, the Times team asked me to do a focus group of conservative men, focused less on their politics and more on where they see themselves fitting into modern culture and society. It's an interesting topic!
Some people were upset that the group focused on conservative men, wondering why they deserve to have a platform in the newspaper of record. (Luckily, many others actually did read the part where we discuss how this is a piece of an ongoing series that includes Democratic-leaning voters on the economy, Gen Z voters on social media and education, etc.)
But some were just upset at these men's views in general. Of course, a big theme of the group was that these men know that their perspectives on society are not widely held these days. My job as a moderator, especially as a young female moderator, is to create a discussion where they feel they can say everything they truly believe without worrying that the researcher is judging them.
That's how you get some participants telling me things like "It’s like, you’re a woman, you’re given a trophy" or "They don’t call women the weaker sex for no reason." Some people have asked me if I was upset by all of that, and I'm mostly like: "Are you kidding, I take that as proof I was doing a good job as moderator creating a comfortable environment for candid conversation!"
Believe me, I've heard everything you can possibly imagine in focus groups. Very little fazes me. That's why I love the Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode where the Gang is focus grouped about their genuinely appalling views on the fictional film Thunder Gun 4: Maximum Cool, or the Progressive Insurance commercials where Flo moderates an awkward focus group where a participant shuts the discussion down by talking about how his niece got kicked out of a silent retreat not for talking but "for grand larceny". This is sometimes how these things go, my friends.
But I'd also encourage people not to focus just on the most eye-popping statements. There were a wide range of views even within the group, something you can sense even more if you actually listen to the 80+ minute audio (versus just reading the abridged summary transcript). And the rise of social disconnection and feelings of isolation from society are valuable to understand, even if those feelings are being experienced by people with whom you who disagree on just about everything. I'm glad the Times asked me to do this and I think you'll all enjoy the groups we have coming next month, too.
Next! Lights out and away we go with an F1 question from my Dad. Hi Dad!:
Red Bull Racing's Helmut Marko isn't saying anything except that it is different from whatever went wrong with his car in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
So, really, who knows, you know? Who can say?
This concluding questions are also spicy in a different way. From Friend of Codebook Chris via Instagram Stories:
Wally is generally not allowed to eat spicy foods, as his guts are pretty sensitive to random things and I'm sure he'd really regret sinking his teeth into a jalapeno. He doesn't need that, and I sure don't need that. However, my wonderful Georgetown students got Wally a present last week that he has been enjoying a great deal.
And related, a question from Kristen V.
I wrote a little about my pepper hobby in March's Ask Away but here are a few practical tips if you want to do this yourself (and live in a climate where there are seasons, like here in DC):
If you are able to start in winter or early spring, start by growing seeds indoors on a sunny windowsill in a seed starter kit like this. Be sure you use seed starter material (peat pellets, etc) not dirt! If you want to get fancy, spring for a heat mat to encourage seeds to germinate. Not all seeds will germinate, so plant more than you think you'll need.
Once the risk of frost has mostly pased, either start moving your seedlings outside gradually (a process called "hardening off") a little bit at a time each day so that they aren't shocked by going from the temperate confines of your house to the harsh sunlight and large temperature fluctuations of the outdoors. I screw this up a lot and wind up with sunburned seedlings if I rush the process. If you forgot to start seeds, you can buy pepper plants at your local hardware store or get some extra fun varieties from specialty pepper plant vendors online (like Pepper Joe's) and they might require less hardening off.
When they've been sufficiently hardened off and the risk of freeze is truly gone and overnight temps are staying in the 50s, the plants can move outside permanently. Put them in either the ground or a big container (I am obsessed with EarthBoxes) with good quality potting soil (I'm trying this soil this year after seeing people on r/hotpepper Reddit rave about it). Feel free to mix in a little Tomato-Tone to that initial soil but go sparingly - you can definitely nuke your plants by overfertilizing!
Keep your peppers watered but don't panic if you see them wilt a little, especially in the heat of summer. Overwatering is bad news for peppers. They thrive on benign neglect! Always let the soil dry out between waterings.
Periodically fertilize throughout the season with a gentle fertilizer. I like this Neptune's Harvest Fish Fertilizer. You pour a tiny amount of this genuinely horrifying brown fish goo (yum!) into a big pump sprayer with a LOT of water to dilute it and then spray it all over your plants. Your backyard will smell a little Sea World-ish for a few hours but it's not as bad as you think?
Prune away any leaves or branches that touch the ground to avoid spreading disease.
You may discover aphids, especially early in summer. Aphids are evil. They will likely look like little green bugs living on the underside of your new growth. You may not see them at first but will notice your plants leaves growing in a weird curly wrinkly shape. If you find them, murder them with all due haste using a gentle dish soap and water spritz.
Wait! Some peppers will produce peppers faster than others. Jalapenos are likely to pop quickly, while super hots or habaneros will take longer. It is not uncommon for me to start habanero seeds in January, put them outside in early May, and not get peppers until OCTOBER. Don't panic if you don't get peppers right away. But do make sure you're not overfertilizing with a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer, because that can encourage your plant to keep pumping out green growth at the expense of flowers and peppers.
All of the linked products are things I've used and none of the links are affiliate links. They're just things I like!
That was a fun one. Thanks to everyone who submitted. See you in May!
Thanks again for being a reader of Codebook. Do you have a question for the next "Ask Away!" feature? Hop to the comments to start the discussion.