Thursday, May 13, 2004

Poll Takes

Polling is a notoriously inexact science – the equivalent of reading tea leaves with computers, as one pollster noted – but an article in The Washington Monthly by Chuck Todd on the historical aspects of past elections provides insight as to what might happen in November.

Over the last year, most political TV shows handicapping the upcoming presidential election have repeated the refrain that the race will be extremely tight. Last month, CNN’s astute commentator Jeff Greenfield hosted an entire segment on how easily this election could turn out like 2000, with President Bush and Sen. John Kerry splitting victories in the popular vote and the electoral college. Greenfield even threw out the possibility of an electoral college split of 269-269, brought about by a shift of just two swing states that went for Bush last time, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. He ended his feature with the conventional wisdom among Washington pundits: “We’re assuming this election will stay incredibly close.” Reporters covering the campaign echo this expectation, sprinkling their campaign dispatches with references to the “closely fought” electoral race and “tight election.”

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There are perfectly understandable reasons why we expect 2004 to be close. Everyone remembers the nail-biting 2000 recount. A vast number of books and magazine articles describe the degree to which we are a 50/50 nation and detail the precarious balance between red and blue states. And poll after poll show the two candidates oscillating within a few percentage points of one another. There are also institutional factors that drive the presumption that the race will be tight. The press wants to cover a competitive horse-race. And the last thing either campaign wants to do is give its supporters any reason to be complacent and stay home on election day.

But there’s another possibility, one only now being floated by a few political operatives: 2004 could be a decisive victory for Kerry. The reason to think so is historical. Elections that feature a sitting president tend to be referendums on the incumbent–and in recent elections, the incumbent has either won or lost by large electoral margins. If you look at key indicators beyond the neck-and-neck support for the two candidates in the polls–such as high turnout in the early Democratic primaries and the likelihood of a high turnout in November–it seems improbable that Bush will win big. More likely, it’s going to be Kerry in a rout.

Read the rest here.

Polls have been wrong in the past. Just ask the editors of The Literary Digest who predicted that Alf Landon would beat FDR in his first bid for re-election in 1936, or the editors of LIFE magazine who were so confident that Thomas E. Dewey would beat Truman in 1948 that they ran a spread with Gov. Dewey as “the next president.” So we can’t just sit back and hope that historical trends are right. This time we have to make them happen.