Gallup Editor Corrects Obama's Estimate

He should have said 9/25ths of Americans went to the polls, not a third.

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014

Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

No one, including President Barack Obama, denies that Nov. 4 was a tough night for Democrats. But that's not stopping Gallup from adding a little statistical refinement to the equation.

Frank Newport, the polling organization's editor-in-chief, penned a takedown of the president's midterm post-mortem, the beginning of which hinges on a close reading of a single fraction. The president addressed low voter turnout by pointing to the "two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process." Taking a breath, Obama addressed them in the news conference. "I hear you, too." 

Newport pointed out that Obama's estimate of a nationwide voter turnout of 33.3 percent would mean that a third of the entire voting-age population went to the polls, but argued that was "technically not quite correct."

The latest estimate from the United States Elections Project and its director Dr. Michael McDonald is that about 36.3% of the voting-eligible population voted in the midterm elections, a little more than one-third. The voting-eligible population excludes those who are 18 and older but ineligible to vote, including non-citizens, and those in prison, on probation or on parole who are ineligible felons. About 33.6% of all voting-age population voted, which is closer to the third mentioned by the president. But the 36% is the more reasonable estimate, given that those who are not eligible shouldn't be counted in the denominator when the voting turnout is estimated. 

So, yes, the president could have been more precise. He could have addressed the 9/25th's of Americans who voted instead of the third. To be fair, a difference of three percentage points can sometimes mean a whole lot to a candidate who loses by two.

Newport conceded it's a relatively small point to make given the bigger picture. "The general idea is correct," he wrote. "Turnout was low."