Oct. 31, 2012
To this day, the 1948 photograph of a victorious President Harry Truman holding the inaccurate newspaper headline with its bold headline“Dewey defeats Truman” stands as a testament to the fallibility of pollsters, pundits and predictive prospects in general.
In 2012, no matter who wins the contest between President Obama and GOP nominee, several pollsters are going to have proverbial eggs on their very public faces. Others will be hailed as geniuses. Not everyone can be right, and some are bound to be wrong. With so many polls offering up so many numbers, at least one polling firm is bound to come out looking like the Chicago Tribume did the morning after Truman defeated Dewey.
Modern readers might recall that iconic black-and-white moment from yesteryear and think with a kind of smug assurance how far the “science” of polling has come since 1948. Yet if a few names were changed and “e-mail” was substituted for “telegram” in the following article, it could just as easily be from 2012.
Senator McGrath told Gallup in a telegram last night that “your polls this year do not tell a complete story nor give an accurate interpretation of your own findings.” (Source: Adjust poll: Gallup urged, Seattle Spokesman-Review, Oct. 30, 1948)
Sen. J. Howard McGrath, at that time a senator from Rhode Island, also served as the Democratic National Committee chairman in 1948. His telegram would be the equivalent of Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz firing off an accusatory email to Gallup at this stage of the campaign. Gallup suspended polling for two days because of Superstorm Sandy, but recent numbers from that firm show Romney with a popular vote lead of about five or six points. Gallup, as it did in 1948, has the Republican challenger ahead of the Democratic incumbent as the race winds down.
McGrath’s telegram came after a long summer and autumn of Truman taking a beating in the polls, and not just in those conducted by Gallup. Fortune Magazine, for example, wrote on Oct. 1 of 1948 that Dewey led Truman by an “almost unbeatable margin of 44 per cent to 31 per cent.”
In 1948, it turned out that McGrath was right. Gallup, who quit polling three weeks before Election Day, missed the mark. Gallup polls throughout 1948 had Dewey winning by anywhere from five to 15 points. Truman won the actual popular vote with 49.1 percent to Dewey’s 45.1 percent, with Truman pulling in 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189. Dixiecratwon 2.4 percent of the popular vote, which was good enough for 39 electoral votes.
Polling for the 2012 election cycle hasn’t so much been all over the map as it has been a never-ending series of different maps from different sources. Gallup’s numbers have looked good for Romney of late, but plenty of other polls are predicting an Obama victory, in the Electoral College if not the popular vote.
But perhaps no pollster has as much riding on an Obama victory as Punditty correctly predicted 48 of the 50 states, missing only Indiana and Missouri. He also predicted a 364-174 Obama Electoral College win. Obama won 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173.), who correctly predicted the election in 2008, missing only one state. (Note:
In 2008, Obama won by a 52.9-45.7 popular vote margin over McCain and won 28 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District (which is how Punditty missed the Electoral Vote count by a single vote). In 2012, no one is more aware than Silver that getting just one state wrong this year – Ohio, for example – could be the difference between continued accolades for accuracy and being dismissed as what Politico’s Dylan Byers called “a one-term celebrity.”
As of late afternoon on Halloween, Silver’s 538 blog on the New York Times website had Obama with a 77.4 percent chance of being re-elected, predicting that he would receive 299 electoral votes to Romney’s 239. He also had Obama winning the popular vote, 50.4 percent to 48.5 percent.
Those numbers could change given the polls that are published between now and Nov. 6, and they probably will. But at this late stage of the game, something would need to shift dramatically in Silver’s numbers in order for his predicted final outcome to change. The same goes for Gallup’s numbers.
When all is said and done and a winner is determined, both Gallup and Silver will see their respective reputations shift, one way or another.
Punditty will be weighing in soon with his admittedly unscientific prediction for the outcome of the 2012 presidential race, but here’s a hint of what’s to come: Silver’s model has it wrong on at least one aspect of the popular vote. More than 1.1 percent of the electorate will just say no to both Obama and Romney, with bothand outperforming Libertarian and Green totals for 2008. It could be enough to affect the outcome of the election.
Stay tuned for November.
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