Rearview polls offer distorted look at presidential preferences
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
If I ran for president, I’d probably get some key votes.
My mother would back me, I’m sure. So would my favorite aunt. My three kids, I don’t know. Usually when I lean left, they lean right. And vice versa.
You know children.
But I’m pretty sure I could lock in the vote of about 20 percent of my immediate family, and that would be a formidable bloc. Far more of a percentage than you’ve seen lately from some pretty high-powered political names. Folks like Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. They are on the long list of people who want to be president in 2016. I can’t imagine why, but it’s true.
And if any one of those gentlemen had 20 percent in the polls, Donald Trump would not. He would be reduced to an average Don in an otherwise above-average Republican competition.
Insurance actuaries and math engineers could not have calculated the odds of what we’ve seen this year. But it’s that very unpredictability that should give undecided voters the most comfort. In the immortal words of — God rest his soul —Yogi Berra, it ain’t over.
The same news cycle whose polls drive us to distraction is the same one whose daily events change the contents of the polls themselves.
As example, I give you Herman Cain, who at this time four years ago was destined to be president, if you believed what you read. Polls had him atop the Republican field.
Cain, at the time, had this to say to an interviewer:
“The American people are sick and tired of excuses. This is why I believe that I am doing so well in the polls.”
Just months later, Cain fell flat on his face over allegations of sexual harassment and within a few weeks exited the campaign.
Look at 2012 a bit closer and you’ll see the names of other people who led the GOP polls before finally losing out to eventual candidate Mitt Romney. Where are you now, Rick Perry? Rick Santorum? Losers then and now, with neither man gaining traction in 2016’s run-up.
History is rife with such tales, men who relied so much on polls that they forgot about voters. They were looking in the rearview mirror to see who was trailing and failed to notice the advisory: Some objects are closer than they seem.
After all, wasn’t Thomas Dewey supposed to beat Harry Truman?
Richard Nixon was substantially ahead of John Kennedy in December 1959. One year (and one bad TV debate for Nixon) later, and JFK was en route to the White House. Nixon would have to wait another eight years.
In terms of winners and final numbers, The Gallup Poll has missed the call on five out of 17 presidential elections since 1948. That means the most reliable poll out there has been wrong 29.4 percent of the time. Perhaps weather forecasters should be conducting these polls. At least they have Doppler and can see what’s coming.
There is a long time until the first elections (Feb. 1 in Iowa), and just about any candidate could do something, good or bad, to change the standings between now and then. The primaries that follow will cement much of the rest, in terms of nominees.
There is a reason why choosing a president is not left up to the pollsters. There is only one true poll, and that’s the one conducted by voters on Election Day. Everything else is just noise.
Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (618) 977-6865.