Following up on my last post Big Data Flubs Donald Versus Hillary, here are some famous cases where pre-election polls were wrong.
The Literary Digest Predicts Landon Will Defeat Roosevelt in 1936
In 1936, the United States and the world were in the depths of the Great Depression. Unemployment and poverty were rampant. Hitler had risen to power in Germany. The communist government in Russia had skidded off the rails under Stalin, executing both supporters and opponents in an increasingly obvious reign of terror. A severe drought and unusually hot temperatures in 1934 had devastated agriculture in the midwest, the so-called “Dust Bowl”, leading to huge numbers of destitute migrants and economic refugees from Oklahoma and other states hard hit by the drought.
In the drought year of 1934, several former key supporters of President Roosevelt, especially the controversial Senator from Louisiana Huey Long broke away and attempted to form a third party, arguing for policies like Social Security and strong government intervention to create jobs. Huey Long was a flamboyant populist politician with rumored ties to underworld figures. Many people saw him as an American Hitler or at least Mussolini. Long was assassinated on September 10, 1935, which ended the threat that he might run as a third party candidate for President in 1936.
Whether to head off a populist revolt or due to genuine disappointment with the results of his policies or some mixture of both, President Roosevelt shifted to the left, enacting many of the policies such as Social Security that most people think of as the New Deal today and dropping many of the pro-business policies associated with the National Recovery Administration (NRA). Roosevelt’s shift to the left increased denunciations of him as an American Hitler, would-be dictator, communist, and similar charges by conservatives, Republicans, and various business leaders.
It was against this polarized backdrop with fear and anger running rampant that the prestigious Literary Digest which had correctly predicted the outcomes of the 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, and 1932 elections by conducting polls, conducted a poll for the 1936 election. The 1936 poll predicted a landslide for the Republican candidate Alf Landon: Landon, 1,293,669; Roosevelt, 972,897
The Chicago Tribune Predicts Dewey Defeats Truman in 1948
In the 1930’s and 1940’s most major newspapers were solidly conservative, Republican, and hostile to the New Deal and Democrats. None more so than the Chicago Daily Tribune, now just the Chicago Tribune, and its outspoken publisher Robert Rutherford “Colonel” McCormick (1880-1955), often known as the “Colonel” or “Colonel McCormick”. McCormick was a crusading right-wing publisher who had crossed swords with Chicago’s powerful gangsters and could be counted on to denounce liberal policies and the Democrats. He was a man liberals and leftists loved to hate. In some respects, the Chicago Tribune was the FOX News of its time — probably a classier old-school WASP version of FOX News.
In 1948, the Chicago Tribune made its most famous blunder, printing a headline on November 3, 1948 — the day after the election — declaring that the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey had defeated President Harry S. Truman.
The Chicago Tribune had apparently printed the headlines before the election results were in based on their polls showing that Dewey would win!
The Chicago Tribune was not alone in its famous blunder. Most polls, often conducted by then conservative, Republican or Republican leaning newspapers and media organizations had predicted Thomas Dewey as the winner.
Reagan Clobbers Carter in 1980
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.
TIME correspondent and editor John F. Sacks writing in November 1980
President Carter faced some serious headwinds that somehow never showed up in the polls prior to the election. In particular, the revolution in Iran overthrowing the Shah of Iran had been accompanied by a huge run up in oil and energy prices, dampening the economy and seemingly contributing to an unusual surge in inflation for the United States. This economic shock was accompanied by the spectacle of over fifty hostages held at the US embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital, throughout the election — a situation given extensive coverage on the evening news every day. The polls seemed to show the public rallying around the President in the crisis and yet the election results went the other way.
As in more recent failures of pre-election polling, tough-talking Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a none-too-bright war mongering closet racist nut case supported by uneducated rednecks and strangely conservative white factory workers in New York City like Archie Bunker in Norman Lear’s hit 1970’s situation comedy All In The Family.
This high profile condescension may have made the liberal Democratic elite feel good about themselves, but it certainly could not have endeared them to the actual “rednecks” or factory workers even if they decided to vote liberal and Democrat.
In the United Kingdom, just recently, most polls called the BREXIT vote to leave the European Union (EU) wrong, predicting victory for the pro EU position.
As we now know, the polls showing Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by several percentage points have proven wrong. Only the USC/LA Times Daybreak Poll, whether due to luck or better mathematical modeling and statistics, appears to have been roughly correct.
This is a small sample of extreme outliers where the pre-election polls were wildly wrong. One cannot draw many definite conclusions from such a small sample.
Human beings are unpredictable. They give evasive answers. They lie. They change their minds. They are far from the idealized independent identically distributed random variables of probability theory and statistics. Human society is nothing like the idealized fair gambling games of probability theory or radioactive decay in a physics laboratory. Any mathematical model or statistical method applied to human beings should be viewed with caution.
The overall pattern of these cases seems to be that elite opinion diverged from the common man. Whether due to unconscious bias or deliberate manipulation, the pre-election poll results reflected this elite opinion despite the use of purportedly objective mathematics and statistics. In the 1930’s and 1940’s elite opinion in the United States was predominantly conservative Republican hence predictions that Landon and Dewey would win.
In recent decades, we have an elite opinion favoring “globalization,” “free trade,” and “immigration” that is remarkably similar in both political parties in the United States and many political parties elsewhere, e.g. the UK Labor Party under Tony Blair. Hence, the polls missed BREXIT and Trump. It is at best an elite opinion that is out of touch with much of the general population — its practical daily concerns, its feelings, its problems.
© 2016 John F. McGowan
About the Author
John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.