Remembering 1980: Are the Polls Missing Something?

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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.