7 min read

Ignore the crosstabs

Polling crosstabs can grab headlines. But be careful before you put too much stock in them.
Ignore the crosstabs
Photo by Nick Hillier / Unsplash

Good morning! It’s Thursday, June 6, 2024, the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Election Day is 152 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Earlier this week, Axios reported that the Sunrise Movement — a prominent climate group led by youth activists — is withholding its 2024 endorsement of Joe Biden.

The news sparked a lot of criticism of the organization, on the grounds that Biden has gone far beyond his predecessors in putting climate change at the forefront of his agenda and that much of their dissatisfaction with the president seems to center on issues, like Israel/Gaza, that sit outside of their own policy interests as a climate policy group.

But all that left-of-center backbiting is less important than the broader question at hand: Does the move have any impact on the 2024 election?

In Axios’ telling, it could. “Young voters were central to Biden's winning coalition in 2020,” the news outlet reports. “But Biden's position on college protests and the Israel-Hamas war, as well as his approval of some fossil fuel projects, is leaving some folks decidedly apathetic about supporting him in 2024.”

I’ve previously written that it’s certainly true that polls show young voters are increasingly apathetic about supporting Biden in November — but the evidence is thinner that it’s because his Middle East or climate policies aren’t far enough to the left. In a New York Times poll of six battleground states late last year, only 19% of 18- to- 29-year-olds said that Biden is “not liberal or progressive enough.” 26% said he was “too liberal or progressive.” And a majority, 51%, said he was “not too far either way.” Young voters are not particularly ideological, so if you want to find out why Biden is losing their support, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Insofar as the loss of support is policy-driven at all, it likely has more to do with frustration about inflation and the economy, since those are the policies that young people say in polls are most important to them, far outranking Israel/Gaza, climate change, or other issues emphasized by left-wing activists.

Or, as election analyst Lakshya Jain told me, when it comes to young voters, “The focus is on the group that’s the loudest, but it’s not necessarily on the group that’s the largest.” In other words, all the political attention paid to the Sunrise Movement — by both its supporters and its critics — might be a massive distraction, seeing as they only represent a small sliver of actual youth opinion.

Jain is a co-founder of Split Ticket, a site that has been doing great work publishing data-driven political analysis, especially when it comes to polling young voters. I rang him up recently to get a better understanding of the latest Gen Z polling, which has been all over the place recently — sometimes showing Biden performing at around 2020 levels, and sometimes showing Donald Trump leading among the demographic.

You can find my full Q&A with Jain here. Below, I want to focus on some of my key takeaways:

1. Trust the toplines, ignore the crosstabs. In polling lingo, the “topline” number in a poll is the main result (Trump 49, Biden 47); the “crosstabs” are the nitty-gritty demographic information that comes lower down (Biden up 15 among women, Trump up 10 among white voters).

Often times, the crosstab results can grab major headlines — especially lately, as they’ve shown Trump gaining grounds with key Democratic constituencies, like young voters, Black voters, and Hispanic voters. But Jain told me that you should be careful about taking all crosstab results at face value:

“You should look at a number in a poll only if the sample has been designed to be representative,” Jain said. “In the case of a national poll, you should absolutely look at the topline, because it’s designed to be representative of the broad groups in the electorate at large. You have the right number of young people, the right number of old people, the right number of women, of men, people with a degree, whatnot. So you should not discount the toplines.”

“But when you look at the crosstabs, unless there is something being done to where you’re actually weighting the crosstabs to be representative — like you’re saying, ‘Oh, I want 50% of my young voters to be men and 50% to be women, or I want 17% of my seniors to have had a college degree’ or something like that — then you shouldn’t be looking at those crosstabs, specifically age-based crosstabs, because those are usually subject to the most noise. So I would say, especially with age crosstabs, I just wouldn’t look at them.”

2. Oftentimes, those crosstab errors can be particularly emphasized in the results for young voters. There are a few reasons for that. One is that older liberal seniors are the group that most frequently answer polls; in order to make sure their samples are Republican enough, sometimes pollsters will end up calling an over-representative number of young Republicans, ending up with a result that’s correct in the topline but a skewed for young voters in the crosstabs.

The spectrum of opinion within young voters is also broader than for other demographic groups, Jain said: young white men and young Black women vote very differently from each other, for example. So if pollsters aren’t weighting theirs samples to ensure those smaller sub-groups appear in the correct numbers, their crosstabs will be off.

3. Biden’s main issue isn’t that young voters are flocking to Trump, it’s that they might stay home. When pollsters do survey large samples of young voters, as SplitTicket has done, they tend to show a similar result: Biden is sustaining losses with the group, but mainly from young voters who plan to stay home in November or vote for RFK Jr., not from young voters who might flip to Trump.

“It’s not like he’s in good shape with them,” Jain said. “Just because Trump isn’t winning them by 20 points doesn’t mean that Biden is suddenly doing well. His approval rating is shot with this group. It’s at historic lows for a Democratic president. Trump is not really gaining in support among this group, but Biden still underruns what you would expect a Democrat to do.”

4. That’s a much better problem to have. Youth activist groups, like the Sunrise Movement, often like to portray the election like Biden can’t win without them. But if the losses are due to voters who stay home, as opposed to voters who flip to Trump, that’s much more manageable for his campaign.

“Young voters only constitute about 15% of the electorate in any given election, or less,” Jain told me. “So if Biden loses like 10% of his 2020 voters who are under 30 through not voting, obviously that’s not good. But that’s still like a 1% change in margin. And he could easily make that up by just doing a little bit better with old voters.”

3. Highly engaged voters all voters. When the Biden campaign tries to reach young voters, they usually focus on a familiar set of issues: climate change, student loans, etc. But polls show those are not the most important issues to young voters. So, what gives?

“I think the problem is that the staffer class in D.C. is very young,” Jain said. “And, not to go all Fox News on you, but the young staffer class in D.C. and the staffing apparatus of both parties — and the activist class of young voters — is very engaged and very different from how the average young voter is. They’re much more likely to vote, and they’re much more likely to care about niche issues. Israel/Palestine is not an issue that moves the needle for a lot of young voters, but it is one that moves the needle for a lot of activists. The same is true of student debt.”

“The focus is on the group that’s the loudest, but it’s not necessarily on the group that’s the largest. Because, you’re right, if you you at young voters in general, they care most about inflation and health care. That’s what the broad electorate cares about the most too. They care about protecting democracy just as much as the others would. It is true that this group is significantly more liberal. But in terms of issue prioritization, they’re not that different. It’s just that attitudinally they’re like 10-15 points more liberal than the rest of the country is.”

Read my full Q&A with Lakshya Jain here, including a lot more on what campaigns get wrong about young voters and how to properly read polling.

That last point, about the political engagement gap, is going to be a crucial one to keep in mind this election cycle, as evidence continues to mount that the split between engaged and disengaged voters is growing — and not just among young voters.

Here, for example, is a recent Cook Political Report poll that shows Democrats consistently running several points better among high-engagement voters in several key Senate races:

Grapic by the Cook Political Report

A new New York Times/Siena poll, which recontacted previous respondents after the Trump conviction, found disengaged voters to still be fairly swingy at this point in the cycle. “Overall, 8 percent of respondents offered a different response in the presidential race than they had when they were first interviewed no more than eight weeks ago — a tally far higher than many might imagine in today’s polarized country,” the Times reported.

The group most likely to change their minds after the conviction were disengaged voters. Only 1% of Trump supporters who “always” pay attention to politics switched to Biden after the verdict; 15% of those who pay attention “some of the time or never” did.

Graphic by the New York Times

Keep this split in mind whenever you’re taking in data throughout the cycle.

Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.‌‌‌‌

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.‌‌‌‌

— Gabe