NOVAK: No “Dewey defeats Truman” effect in 2016

The obsession with the polls is misguided and counterproductive

In 1948, N.Y. Gov. Thomas Dewey defeated President Harry Truman to become the 34th president of the United States. Or so claimed the Chicago Tribune, in one of the biggest mea culpas in campaign reporting history, perhaps second only to the Literary Digest calling the 1936 election a “Landon in a Landslide,” despite Roosevelt winning historic margins. In both cases, botched polling procedures resulted in comically inaccurate forecasts. The image of Truman triumphantly hoisting the erroneous headline has been seared into the political culture of the United States. It has become the worst nightmare of the frontrunner and the ephemeral glimmer of hope that fuels the last-ditch pushes of candidates behind in the polls.

When it appears that a candidate is pulling ahead, we are reminded of the dangers of presumption. In fact, from the moment a campaign is initiated, we are instantaneously bombarded with a barrage of polling coverage dominating news cycles and threatening to suffocate the policy messages of the candidates. Although it’s true hubris can be dangerous in the campaign’s closing moments, it’s important to remember there are more constructive ways to take advantage of this time beyond obsessing about the accuracy (or lack thereof) of polling.

Although 2016 may have diverged from precedent in a variety of ways, it appears to have at least stayed consistent in this respect. With Hillary Clinton enjoying a sizable lead around 4 points, voices have picked up reminding Clinton and her supporters of the embarrassing moments in presidential polling history. Her competitor, Donald Trump, has claimed the current polling is inaccurate. Meanwhile, seemingly comfortable with her lead, the Clinton campaign has diverted resources into previously uncompetitive battlegrounds and down-ballot races. To further complicate things, Clinton supporters also seem to be sweating their candidate’s lead.

In the wake of these accusations and anxieties, it’s important to get the facts straight. First and foremost, the polls are with all likelihood correct in predicting Clinton’s lead (although the magnitude is up for debate). Additionally, it is extremely unlikely that another Dewey-Truman scenario will occur. It’s important to remember that in 1948, polling was still in an emergent state — far from the dominant role polling plays in the current horserace-style political journalism. As a result, the polls leading to the unfortunate presumption by the Chicago Tribune were fraught with errors that don’t exist in modern polling. For one, in 1948, polling stopped two weeks ahead of election day. Additionally, pollsters in 1948 employed a quota sampling system, which is chronically prone to bias. Today’s most professional polling organizations rely on random sampling, which has proven to be far more accurate. Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that Clinton’s current lead in some recent polls is larger than Dewey’s was in 1948. That’s not to say her lead is insurmountable, but rather that the polling averages are more likely than not accurately forecasting the current state of the race.

On a deeper level, this collective obsession with the Truman-Dewey parable reveals a profound and consequential trend ingrained in our contemporary political landscape. Specifically, the horse race poll coverage in political journalism is out of control, dominating the conversation and depriving the public of a comprehensive profile of each candidate's specific policies and records. In the 2008 primaries, a whopping 63 percent of coverage airtime was dedicated to polls and campaign coverage, while domestic and foreign policy combined constituted a mere 15 percent. This trend continued in 2016, with substantive policy accounting for only 11 percent of overall coverage.

These discrepancies are so egregious because what ultimately matters is the possible policy initiatives of a candidate's future administration, not who was leading at any given point in the race. Despite this, due to the dearth of policy coverage, it’s conceivable that many voters lack a working grasp of the candidate’s positions on the important issues facing the country. The saddest part of this paradigm, however, is the fact that the onus for this worrying trend actually falls on the consumers of media, rather than the media itself. To be fair, media companies exist to make profit, and because they have found that poll-centric, horse race coverage is what draws the most viewers, there is little reason to focus their coverage elsewhere. The path to breaking the media’s obsession with the political horse race starts with the public, rather than the media itself. To be sure, there is a place for polling in campaigns, but currently, the coverage of polls versus substantive policy is troublingly disproportionate.

Realistically, the anxiety and accusation concerning polls is just noise. Even if you trust the polls (which you should), the race is still up for grabs. The candidates should focus their efforts on disseminating their closing arguments and organizing “get out the vote” efforts, not sweating or griping over polling averages. As it concerns the general population, if you truly care about helping your candidate win the election, you’re wasting your time litigating the accuracy of polls. Your time would be better spent volunteering for the Clinton or Trump campaigns or calling voters and reminding them where to vote. When it’s all said and done, it won’t matter whether you believed the polls or not. What you do to directly influence the result of the election, however, could have a lasting impact.

Brendan Novak is a Viewpoint writer.

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