Sunday, October 19, 2008

Polling Results

Polling Results

There has been a lot of discussion of how accurate Presidential polling has become since the great disaster in 1948. It is true that the polls have accurately identified the winner in nearly all the recent elections--but by what margin? Ann Coulter goes over October polls for the last few elections, and makes an interesting claim:
Reviewing the polls printed in The New York Times and The Washington Post in the last month of every presidential election since 1976, I found the polls were never wrong in a friendly way to Republicans. When the polls were wrong, which was often, they overestimated support for the Democrat, usually by about 6 to 10 points.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter narrowly beat Gerald Ford 50.1 percent to 48 percent. And yet, on Sept. 1, Carter led Ford by 15 points. Just weeks before the election, on Oct. 16, 1976, Carter led Ford in the Gallup Poll by 6 percentage points -- down from his 33-point Gallup Poll lead in August.

Reading newspaper coverage of presidential elections in 1980 and 1984, I found myself paralyzed by the fear that Reagan was going to lose.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan beat Carter by nearly 10 points, 51 percent to 41 percent. In a Gallup Poll released days before the election on Oct. 27, it was Carter who led Reagan 45 percent to 42 percent.

In 1984, Reagan walloped Walter Mondale 58.8 percent to 40 percent, -- the largest electoral landslide in U.S. history. But on Oct. 15, The New York Daily News published a poll showing Mondale with only a 4-point deficit to Reagan, 45 percent to 41 percent. A Harris Poll about the same time showed Reagan with only a 9-point lead. The Oct. 19 New York Times/CBS News Poll had Mr. Reagan ahead of Mondale by 13 points. All these polls underestimated Reagan's actual margin of victory by 6 to 15 points.
It is only in 2004 that the polling numbers turn out to be pretty close to the actual election results. Political scientists that I have talked to tell me that one of the reasons why there is this long tradition of overestimating Democratic votes is that many of the polling organizations make assumptions that are simply not historically correct: for example, that the same percentage of blacks vote as whites. Perhaps this time around, with a black person at the head of the Democratic ticket, blacks will vote in the same numbers as whites. But I wouldn't assume that Obama's election is completely in the bag right yet. I think it is likely, but by no means certain.

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