You can believe the polls, sort of Accurate: Yes, most Election Day polls were accurate, but there was a notable "Dewey Beats Truman" exception in New Hampshire.

Sun Journal

November 08, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

"Don't believe the polls," Bob Dole warned voters in the final weeks of the campaign as he vowed an upset victory.

In the end, though, people were better off not believing Dole. The polls, generally, were right.

Eight national surveys showed President Clinton running well ahead in the week before the election. On Tuesday, Clinton won 49 percent of the vote, Dole 41 percent and Reform Party candidate Ross Perot 8 percent. And pollsters' expectations were thus largely fulfilled.

"I think, by and large, [pollsters] should be relatively pleased with their performance," says pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Election Day, though, was not a unanimous victory for those who make their living gauging public opinion. All eight presidential polls underestimated voter support for Dole, and most gave Clinton a considerably wider margin of victory than the 8 percentage points he had in the end.

While polls generally predicted the outcome of gubernatorial and Senate races, several in Nebraska and New Jersey were well off the mark. One of election night's most embarrassing moments came when exit polls wrongly gave the New Hampshire Senate race to Democratic challenger Dick Swett instead of the eventual winner, Republican incumbent Robert C. Smith.

TV networks and radio stations announced a victory for Swett, only to correct it later. Sometime past midnight, National Public Radio's Robert Siegel said that after much "nibbling," it was time for him to "eat crow" and acknowledge the goof in New Hampshire.

Tuesday's results showed that political polling has become a reliable indicator of public opinion but that it also remains imprecise and, at times, an uneasy combination of art and science.

Questionable CBS-Times poll

The discrepancy between polls and Election Day tallies highlighted the difficulties firms continue to have in measuring the changing landscape of popular sentiment. And, as the famous "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" headline shows, people have sharper memories of when you get it wrong than when you get it right.

Of the presidential polls, the one that fell furthest from the mark was the survey by CBS and the New York Times. The survey gave Clinton an 18-point margin over Dole, with the president taking 53 percent, Dole 35 percent and Perot 9 percent.

As is often said, polls are merely a snapshot of opinion during a fixed period of time. When the lens is closed, you run the risk of missing the full picture.

Kathleen Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS News, said she stopped polling on the Saturday before the election. She thinks Dole's continued attacks on Democrats for accepting questionable foreign campaign contributions may have driven more people toward the Republican candidate in the final days.

"There was probably some movement going on that we missed," she says.

As for the polls' tendency to underestimate Dole's support, Frankovic says it is a common phenomenon. Elections are generally referendums on incumbents. Voters who don't make up their minds until Election Day probably aren't very happy with the incumbent and are more likely to vote for the challenger, she says.

While the CBS poll overestimated the margin of victory in the presidential race, New Jersey pollster Janice Ballou found herself in a different situation election night. Two days after the Newark Star-Ledger published her poll showing a dead heat in the Senate race between Democratic Rep. Robert G. Torricelli and Republican Rep. Dick Zimmer, Torricelli won, 53 percent to 43 percent.

Since the election, Ballou, director of polling at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, has been trying to figure out what happened. She thinks the problem lies in the peculiarities of the state's politics and the challenge of gauging voter turnout.

New Jersey shares major media markets with New York and Philadelphia, but does not have a state-wide newspaper or TV station of its own. Therefore, Ballou says, there is often less news coverage of political races and an unusually high percentage of undecided voters going into Election Day.

"You have this really large bloc of voters that moves around and makes life hard. I constantly refer to them as the 'mushy middle.' "

The last Eagleton Institute poll, completed Friday, found Torricelli with 42 percent, Zimmer with 41 percent and 15 percent undecided. Over the weekend, though, a reported plan to intimidate urban Democrats from going to the polls became a rallying cry to turn out the vote in black communities. And on Election Day, Democrats and their friends in the labor movement aggressively worked phone banks and knocked on doors.

More Democrats voted

The result: Exit polls showed that far more Democrats came out Tuesday than Republicans, giving Torricelli an easy win.

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