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Nobody Has the Answer, Least of All the Polls

November 08, 2000|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of President George Bush. E-mail:pinkerto@ix.netcom.com

Remember "Dewey Beats Truman"? That was the famous headline in the Chicago Tribune that forever symbolizes the problems that newspapers have as they go to press. While a bit of wishful thinking may have edged into the Tribune's headline composer, just about everyone else on the night of Nov. 2, 1948, thought that New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey would in fact defeat President Harry S. Truman in his bid for a second term.

Why did people think that? Because of the polls. Polls have driven this election too, and yet they haven't been a much better guide than they were 52 years ago.

The problem with polls back then was that there weren't enough of them; George Gallup stopped sampling in early October. The problem now is that there are too many of them; anyone who has answered the phone during the dinner hour in the last few years likely has been pestered by some sort of survey researcher, and not necessarily just on behalf of a political candidate. The response to this polling profusion has been non-response--literally. Many people, anxious to protect what remains of their privacy, screen their calls; others, living the two-career, modem-dependent, soccer-momming lifestyle, simply can't or don't answer the phone.

Moreover, huge proportions of the population now vote absentee; whatever trend the pollsters might have detected in the closing days of the campaign means nothing to votes cast the month before. Bottom line: All the tried-and-tested statistical formulae the pollsters have figured out over the years are likely on their way out the window.

No doubt these technical glitches have spilled over even into exit polling, especially in a fast-growing state such as Florida, which first was called and then uncalled for Gore, with its final status still undetermined as of deadline time.

So now we know better than to rely on any sort of projection, which explains the iffy nature of the headlines this morning. Eventually, of course, the voters, all 100 or so million of them, will get their say. But even when the election is called, mysteries will remain.

What, for example, made Florida so tight? Shifting demographics have stirred confusion. Not so long ago, most of the Latinos in Florida were Cuban Americans; now, that ethnic subset, with its specific history of strong anti-communism and pro-Elianism, makes up less than half the Sunshine State's rapidly swelling Latino population. For other Latino groups, the Democratic message of easier immigration, more generous social benefits and affirmative action set-asides likely mattered more than anti-Castroism. But who knew who would vote, and for whom? Evidently not the pollsters.

Another tricky factor: Social Security. George W. Bush's partial-privatization plan put him athwart the metaphorical "third rail" of American politics, but maybe he didn't get such a lethal shock after all. There's no doubt that Al Gore's "Save Social Security" war cry threw Bush on the defensive in the closing weeks. Yet maybe the Democratic attack wasn't as effective this time, as the population, even in senior-heavy Florida, became more and more aware of investment opportunities in, say, the stock market. So maybe--who knows?--folks decided that perhaps they liked Bush's program after all. The problem, of course, is that there's no sure way to tell; the "data," such as they are, come from polls and exit polls.

The pollsters did get one thing right: the fade of Ralph Nader, although historical precedent suggested that phenomenon as well. From Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 to Henry Wallace in 1948 to John Anderson in 1980, exotic third-party candidates are more fun to think about voting for than actually to vote for. This year, with the election so close, most of the left-liberal establishment closed ranks around Gore, driving Ralph Nader's vote down into Pat Buchanan territory. Of course, in a one-point race, Nader's three points nationwide could still loom huge.

And so, perhaps politics will revert to what it once was: an occasion for suspense, in which politicians once again have to go with their guts, not with their hired guns. Throughout the 1864 presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln thought he might lose his reelection bid; instead, he won a 10-1 victory in the electoral college. So is that a hopeful precedent that Lincoln didn't have pollsters? Maybe, although there's little indication that either of the White House wannabes is another Lincoln. But then again, as this election proves, nobody knows much of anything about what the future holds.

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