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.