The truth is that the good polling firms got it right as they do most of the time. Even so, the polls didn’t take all the suspense out of election night — and that was true mainly because of the doubts raised by Republican strategists and some wishful thinking by Romney backers. But there have been some stunning misses by pollsters in the past.
There was the famous 1948 election polling debacle. Republican Thomas E. Dewey was expected to unseat President Harry S. Truman who succeeded to office after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Polls and pundits called the race for Dewey long before election day. Elmo Roper of Roper Polls announced in early September he planned no more polls because Dewey was heading for certain victory. Roper’s inclination was to predict Dewey’s election “by a heavy margin and devote my time and efforts to other things.”
So certain was the Chicago Daily Tribune that it published an early edition declaring, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” After Truman won, he displayed the headline and famously mimicked NBC radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn’s election night prediction that although Truman led in “a few cities,” but when the country returns came in “the result will show Dewey winning overwhelmingly.” Truman won 28 states with 303 electoral votes.
The worst debacle had to be the 1936 polling by Literary Digest in the race between Republican Alf Landon and FDR who was running for a second term. The Digest announced in August that 1,000 workers were on the job as the publication’s “smooth-running machine moves with swift precision of 30 years’ experience to reduce guesswork to hard fact.” The Digest was asking more than 10 million voters, “one out of every four, representing every county in the United States — to settle November’s election in October.”
The Digest was cocky, predicting: “When the last figure has been totted and checked, if past experience is a criterion, the country will know to within a fraction of 1 percent the actual popular vote of 40 millions.” Starting in September, returns from the Digest’s postcard poll showed Landon leading week after week. By mid-October he was leading in 32 of the 48 states. FDR led in only 16. A week later it was Landon 54 percent to Roosevelt’s 40 percent.
On Oct. 31, three days before the election, the Digest declared Landon would win with 370 electoral votes to 161 for Roosevelt. When the votes were counted, it was a landslide – for FDR. He won the biggest electoral victory in history with 523, carrying 46 states and amassing 60.8 percent of the popular vote, second highest since 1820.
Polling has come a long way since then.