Elections 2012: Invisible in the Polls – Why Indians Don’t Count

UPDATED SEPTEMBER 28, 9:46 A.M.: 9th graph should have said at least 17 Natives surveyed.

American Indians and Alaska Natives don’t count. Oh, sure, after Election Day, in a few counties, states and regions, there will be accounts about how Native American voters tipped the balance. A good story. Accurate. One I have written. Many times.

But if you want to look for where Indian country stands, right now, right this minute, there’s nary a clue. Indian country is invisible.

Last week, for example, a new poll was published by the Center for Rural Strategies about rural voters in nine swing states. There was some really fascinating stuff. Question: “Do you or anyone in your immediate family generate personal income from farming, ranching or agriculture?” Only 7 percent said more than half and 13 percent said less than half. While 77 percent answered no. Remember this is a poll of rural people. Forty-three percent owned guns (and 9 percent owned ten or more guns). Only ten percent knew someone who “you believe” is in this country without documentation. And nearly 81 percent know someone who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan and a third had a family member who is serving or has served.

But what about American Indians in those swing states? (I’d really like to know about Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado.) C’mon, those of us who live on reservations are rural, right?

When that question is asked and answered, there are hardly any minority groups represented among these rural voters. There’s only 6 African-Americans, 4 Hispanic or Latino, 1 Native American, 0 Asian, 1 Other, and 4 Don’t know or refused to answer.

In a way that’s progress: In most national polls the Native American response would come from the “other” category.

Kitty Wells

Kitty Wells


This is the problem. This poll surveyed 600 people. That’s a small sample size. And because of that there really can’t be more than one Native American because the pool has to be somewhat representative of the larger population. In other words: Any accurate poll that includes Native Americans has to be huge.

“The single largest barrier to studying Native American voting patterns is the lack of accurate and available data,” wrote Geoff Peterson in his academic study, “Native American Turnout in the 1990 and 1992 Elections. “While many of the national political behavior surveys include Native Americans, the number is always so small (often fewer than 10) that statistical analysis is impossible.”

Think of it this way: American Indians and Alaska Natives are about 1.7 percent of the U.S. population. That means there should be at least 17 Native Americans surveyed in a poll of 1,000 people, a number too small for an accurate reflection. The Gallup Daily Tracking Poll, one of the largest, with a “total sample of 3,272 registered voters, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.”

Peterson used the Census’ Current Population Survey because it interviews 70,000 people, and, “due to the large sample size, it was possible to find several hundred Native Americans in the overall data pool. Although the data contain limited political information, a large number of demographic characteristics are available.”

So you can get good data. Just not good political data in real time. Invisible again.

A post last week on the liberal website, Daily Kos, explored the problem of an accurate reflection of Asian Americans. The series, Beyond the Margin of Error, said only 35 percent of Asians in the Daily Kos/SEIU/PPP poll said they lived in the West but the Census shows 55 percent of registered voters who are Asian American in that region. Meanwhile, the Daily Kos poll showed 17 percent of Asians saying they lived in the Midwest, compared to 8 percent in the census. Or, as the author noted, “Uh oh.”

That same post noted, parenthetically, “American Indian numbers are also messed up but that will be a whole separate post. Eventually.”

After Election Day there are a few ways to gauge what happened in tribal communities. The best is to look at the results in precincts with high Native American numbers, such as on the reservation or in Alaskan villages. But that leaves out a lot. We don’t know much about urban Indian voters – even after an election.

There could be much more polling in states like South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Alaska and Oklahoma. But the pool would still have to be large enough to be valid – and more important, the questions that impact Indian country would have to be asked.

Like I said: Invisible.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.