Are polls likely to get Obama-Romney race wrong?

Are we ripe for another “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment?

In 1948, pollsters had N.Y. Gov. Thomas Dewey up 5 points over Harry S. Truman heading into Election Day. The combination of that and bad journalism led the Chicago Tribune to print 150,000 papers with a banner headline that got the results exactly wrong.

Or maybe, as this Atlantic piece by Rebecca J. Rosen wonders, are we headed for another 1936? That year, the nation’s leading pollster, the Literary Digest, predicted a landslide victory for Alf Landon over incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt, which also was almost exactly wrong.

The reason people wonder is that the nation is undergoing a transition in terms of how we communicate, and how we are accessible. Polling relies on the ability to assemble a truly random sample. Until fairly recently, random telephone calls accomplished this nicely, as nearly everyone had a landline phone.

Today, a sizeable and growing segment of the population, mostly young, is accessible primarily through a cell phone or on social media. This Pew survey from 2007 found 49 percent of those in the 18-29 age group in this category back then, with the percentages thinning out quickly among older people.

This Scripps Howard News Service piece by Ben Boychuk argues that we’re being set up for a big polling fail. This, he says, is because “too many pollsters use outmoded turnout models and flawed samples.”

But a lot of other people are warning, “Not so fast.”

Pollsters today are using sophisticated methods and tools such as Census data to analyze information and account for discrepancies. This piece discusses some of this and notes pollsters are even counting negative and positive tweets on a candidate.

And the Atlantic piece I mentioned earlier notes that a close analysis of the 1936 Alf Landon fail shows the convention wisdom about it — that it relied too much on telephone respondents at a time when telephones were too new, rare and mostly owned by Republicans — is false. The culprit was a survey mailed out to millions, to which a disproportionate number of Republicans responded.

The Atlantic piece ends by saying, “Statistical and polling methods have improved dramatically since 1936, making the chance of an error of this magnitude — for reasons of technological penetration or any other — highly unlikely.”

Given the speculation this year about polling and shifting communication patterns, as well as the seeming witch’s brew of methods to deal with it all, the only thing I can say with certainty is that time will tell, and that we will all know for sure in about a month.

Categories: Campaign 2012

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.


  1. Nate

    I don’t trust polls from any news organization. Their mission should be to report the news; but they think their mission is to shape public opinion. Their polls nearly always reflect this error.

  2. Henry Drummond

    The fact that we have to go back more than sixty years to find an example of when the polls were way off, shows how far things have changed. Most of the time when polls have got it wrong has been one of predicting turnout. The best example I can think of was the Republican Primary in Colorado. The rural vote who favored Rick Santorum turned out in greater numbers than pollsters thought they would, while the urban voters who favored Mitt Romney turned out in lower numbers. Why was that? Overconfidence among Romney supporters? Lack of enthusiasm? Where there other local races that changed things? Nobody really seems to know for sure. If there are surprises in this election, it will probably be along those lines though. I don’t think pollsters are making the sampling errors that some people think they are.

  3. ECR

    Just one more right leaning writer planting seeds of doubt should Obama pull off a victory. When will those on that side of the aisle finally accept the president for who he is – an American citizen who wants to serve. The reason for their disdain becomes more transparent with each essay they write.

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