History says trust the polls: It will be tight, but Obama has a slight edge

“Polls are a cliché in this country. We have a poll-phobia here. They don’t impress me; they can be fixed.”

Spot quiz: Who said that?

It sounds like something someone in the Romney camp might have said today in response to the Realclearpolitics.com spread showing a 2.9 percent average lead for President Obama in Ohio.

But in reality it was said by the sister of Adlai E. Stevenson on the eve of the 1956 election. Polls showed her brother trailing Dwight D. Eisenhower as Election Day approached.

Those polls were correct.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog speculating as to when the next big polling meltdown might occur. A significant portion of the population is shifting from landline to cellular telephones, making it harder for pollsters to reach them. Some pollsters are beginning to track social media to get a handle on the pulse of popular opinion. The methods are starting to sound a little shaky.

But until the day comes when the aggregate of polls gets the big one wrong, we have to assume they are right. That’s because they have an impressive track record.

Even in 1980, when people seemed to be taken by surprise by Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory, polls had called it pretty much correctly.

A headline in the New York Times on Nov. 3, 1980 said, “Reagan and Carter stand nearly even in last polls.” However, the third paragraph said:

“But there was nothing in the national polls to indicate that Mr. Reagan was losing any of his apparently sizable lead in the state-by-state battle for the electoral votes that actually decide the election.”

True, as it turned out.

Realclearpolitics today shows 201 electoral votes in Obama’s camp and 191 in Romney’s, with 146 tossup votes. In a lot of those tossup states, including Ohio, the polling results are virtually tied when the margin of error is taken into account.

It’s a pretty sure bet the election is going to be close, but Obama appears to have a slight edge.

Or, you could look at the less scientific polls. This csmonitor.com piece notes that the Washington Redskins of the NFL have predicted nearly every election since 1940 by their performance the Sunday before Election Day. If the team wins, the incumbent wins. That has happened nine times out of nine. If the team loses, the party that didn’t control the White House has won eight out of nine times.

Carolina beat Washington 21-13 on Sunday. Good news for Mitt Romney.

But the University of Alabama won Saturday, and the “Alabama rule” suggests an Obama win.

Given the polls, you could probably examine coffee grounds and have a good chance of being right.

But getting back to Adlai Stevenson, it may be good to remember Garret “Jack” O’Brien. He was a bus tour guide in Manhattan who got his 15 minutes of fame in 1952 by claiming he took his own poll among the people who rode his bus.

O’Brien said he accurately picked Harry Truman that way in 1948 — an interesting feat considering some, including the Chicago Tribune, had gotten it wrong. His confident appraisal in November of 1952 was that Stevenson would win by a 2-to-1 margin.

Ouch. Even the candidate’s sister might not have fallen for that one.

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.

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