Remembering 1980: Are the Polls Missing Something?

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AP

U.S. President Jimmy Carter, left, and Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan face their panelists during their televised debate at the Cleveland Convention Center in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 28, 1980.

In November 1980, the great TIME correspondent and editor John F. Stacks (a mentor to such stars as John Dickerson and many others) won the unenviable task of analyzing how and why every single public pollster (including ours) missed the Reagan landslide earlier that month. Wrote Stacks:

For weeks before the presidential election, the gurus of public opinion polling were nearly unanimous in their findings. In survey after survey, they agreed that the coming choice between President Jimmy Carter and Challenger Ronald Reagan was “too close to call.” A few points at most, they said, separated the two major contenders.

But when the votes were counted, the former California Governor had defeated Carter by a margin of 51% to 41% in the popular vote–a rout for a U.S. presidential race. In the electoral college, the Reagan victory was a 10-to-1 avalanche that left the President holding only six states and the District of Columbia.

After being so right for so long about presidential elections–the pollsters’ findings had closely agreed with the voting results for most of the past 30 years–how could the surveys have been so wrong? The question is far more than technical. The spreading use of polls by the press and television has an important, if unmeasurable, effect on how voters perceive the candidates and the campaign, creating a kind of synergistic effect: the more a candidate rises in the polls, the more voters seem to take him seriously.

With such responsibilities thrust on them, the pollsters have a lot to answer for, and they know it. Their problems with the Carter-Reagan race have touched off the most skeptical examination of public opinion polling since 1948, when the surveyers made Thomas Dewey a sure winner over Harry Truman. In response, the experts have been explaining, qualifying, clarifying–and rationalizing. Simultaneously, they are privately embroiled in as much backbiting, mudslinging and mutual criticism as the tight-knit little profession has ever known. The public and private pollsters are criticizing their competition’s judgment, methodology, reliability and even honesty.

At the heart of the controversy is the fact that no published survey detected the Reagan landslide before it actually happened. Three weeks before the election, for example, TIME’S polling firm, Yankelovich, Skelly and White, produced a survey of 1,632 registered voters showing the race almost dead even, as did a private survey by Caddell. Two weeks later, a survey by CBS News and the New York Times showed about the same situation.

Now, there has hardly been a presidential campaign adviser since 1980 who, finding his candidate either down or uncomfortably close to the competitor, has not cited the Carter-Reagan pre-election polls as evidence they are in much better shape than they appear to be. For the most part, the polls have returned to their pre-1980 accuracy.

But the current debate between the Obama and Romney camps over this year’s voter turnout–whether more or less people will come out to vote than in 2008–makes Stacks’ thorough after-action report particularly relevant (subscribe to read the whole thing).

On the one hand, Romney backers point to Gallup’s projections for a shrinking electorate to claim the polls have way overstated Obama’s advantage. The tightest summary of that position, with some links, is here. Gallup is very blunt: “U.S. Voter Turnout Will Likely Fall Short of 2004, 2008.”

On the other hand, Obama aides David Plouffe and Jim Messina have been saying for months that their single-minded goal is an expansion of the pro-Obama electorate and that their very well-organized ground game will deliver it on Tuesday. Here‘s Messina on that, including the blunt assertion that “Voter turnout will reach an all-time high in this election.”

The Gallup and Messina scenarios can be reconciled (sort of) if turnout is down in red states but up in battleground states. But there’s also the possibility that one side is very right and the other is very wrong and that we’ll be looking for answers come Nov. 7th.

Stacks, unfortunately, isn’t around to provide them–he died Sept. 4–but there are plenty of his acolytes on the job.

48 comments
TomLeone
TomLeone

The liberals are TOXIC WASTE AND MUST BE DISPOSED OF APPROPRIATELY!!!

JoeDiamos
JoeDiamos

that is because the liberals were lying about the polls....    again !

RandyBrown1
RandyBrown1

Polling conducted by the mostly liberal polling outfits often if not most often turn out results that are highly tainted by wishful thinking.  This has been obvious for decades.  

JubalBiggs
JubalBiggs

You could also mention 2004 with the dramatically under-reported Bush performance in Ohio. Or how about 2010, when most pollsters thought a relatively mild wave in favor of the GOP would maybe give them a couple seats, but the overwhelming narrative was "an evenly divided nation". 2010 wasn't anything like 'evenly divided', Congressional Democrats got slaughtered. Why is it that these mistakes only occur when reporting good years for Republicans? Would it have anything to do with this?

"The spreading use of polls by the press and television has an important, if unmeasurable, effect on how voters perceive the candidates and the campaign, creating a kind of synergistic effect: the more a candidate rises in the polls, the more voters seem to take him seriously."

Why are current swing state polls sampling based on an expected Democratic turnout in excess of their 2008 advantage? Do they just believe everything that comes from he Obama campaign as God's Own Truth, or are they intentionally trying to keep their guy in the fight against the fundamentals? Why do we somehow poll latinos far more than evangelicals? Why, why why... Why do we believe polls anyway?

gordo29
gordo29

We haven't had such a clear choice in direction in such a closerace since 1980, so the article makes sense.  Having lived throughthat, I can tell you the level of angst this year dwarfs 1980.  We werebeaten down by the terrible economy, disasters overseas and simple doom andgloom, but I don't remember such fear and loathing between the sides.Carter, though a very poor president, did not manage to alienate everyone hedisagreed with, nor did he try...but he made very poor decisions and alientatedmany in his own party with his anti-Washington stance.  But he was a niceman who wore a sweater, etc.  In 1980 we had a challenger who was agovernor and former actor vs a failed president who was likable.  This timewe have governor and businessman vs a failed president who has beenunbelievably partisan, but who is likable for half the electorate.There is one important result that this country needs beyond anything -whoever wins MUST become a leader for all the people.  Romney has alreadydone that many times over.  Obama never has, but he will need to ASAP if hewins.Should be a crazy night!

mrnathan.ges
mrnathan.ges

One problem facing the country is this: If low-interest voters don't turn out and Romney wins, a lot of Democrats are going to blame it on alleged voter suppression. If turnout is high and Obama wins, a lot of Republicans are going to blame it on alleged voter fraud. Neither side remotely trusts the other. Partisan Democrats sincerely believe Republicans will fire-hose crowds of black people whenever they can get away with it, and partisan Republicans sincerely believe Democrats will cast false votes to inflate their numbers in big cities.I don't have a dog in this fight, because I think the evidence is inconclusive. None, one or both of the allegations could be right. But in any case, we're going to have to heal this rift, and restore faith in democratic integrity, before we can properly assess whose turnout models actually reflect the desires of the citizens.

MartR2012
MartR2012

Are the Polls missing something? Yes they are. They are not asking about all the candidates on the ballot. I was asked who would I likely vote for, Romney or Obama. I said neither. They ended the call right then and there. 

Yes. There IS something missing in the polling. If they are not thorough then the results are not reliable.

JoeBrandimore
JoeBrandimore

I have been thinking myself how much this election reminds me of 1980. As I recall that year (my first election), Carter didn't really have much support. There was a anti-Reagan vote for sure, as the media had charactertured Reagan as some sort of "bomb Russia" war monger.

As the debates especially unfolded, people found the media's "message" to be way off base - that while Reagan for sure had strong anti-communist principles he was also far from crazy. He became an acceptable - even preferable alternative to Carter.

Reagan also had strong supporters on his side and not just "anti-Carter" votes.

Contrast 1980 with this year. Once again, we had a media "message" about Romney as a latter day Marie Antioinette type of plutocrat blown up in the debates. Romney either won or lost, but clearly he established himself as a viable alternative to Obama.

Taken along with the fact there seems to be a palpable enthusiasm gap towards Romney and I have a weird feeling we are going to have a blowout next Tuesday.

I could be wrong, but even among the Obama voters I know I don't sense much desire for a 2nd term for Obama.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

Reagan held a lead from mid-September onward and had a two or three point lead heading into the debates. Private polling conducted for the Reagan and Carter campaigns showed the same thing. Thus, Reagan’s 10 point victory is NOT a model for a come-from-behind victory

TyPollard
TyPollard

Question: What were the personal favorability ratings of Reagan compared to Romney?

I'm guessing they are different.

charlieromeobravo
charlieromeobravo

"Are the Polls Missing Something?"

Is the media bored with 2 days of relatively no campaign news so they feel the need to write blog posts like this? 

nhautamaki
nhautamaki

Lost in all that analysis is the fact that the media has a vested interest in pollsters concluding that races are 'too close to call--but stay tuned in for more exciting developments on this neck-and-neck race to the finish line!'

The media is supposed to be politically unbiased and to be honest I do think that most journalists (not pundits, mind you, but journalists) take that goal very seriously and get as close as humanly possible a lot of the time.  But politically unbiased is not unbiased, and it's virtually impossible to be financially unbiased.  If the media narrative was 'Obama is walking away with this election and there's virtually nothing Romney can do to stop it'--ie the truth--people might not follow the news as obsessively and ad revenue might drop.

ahandout
ahandout

All the momentum is in Romney's favor.  That we know for sure.  Prediction:  Romney wins by 5 points.

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

Anybody who says they know who will win next week is lying. That said, polling and computer modelling have evolved a lot since 1980 (partially in response to the miscall of the 1980 election), and, based on their record and their methodologies, I'm more inclined to believe the odds offered by Nate Silver and Sam Wang, although they could be wrong. We'll know in 7 days.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

Why is there a perpetual need on the media's part to second guess everything that is done in this election for the sake of appearing non-biased.  

"We have all this polling data, but is it accurate?"

"Mitt Romney lies a lot, but does Obama lie too?"

Give me a break.  You're not going to win over any Fox viewers and your efforts just come off as insincere.  If you have no certainty over anything, at all, that will happen in this election then I have to ask; why write anything?