BY MICHAEL BARONE
Why opinion polls are worth less
The characters in Thomas Mallon's soon-to-be-published novel, Dewey Defeats Truman, contemplate a 1948 America in which
the polls turn out to be right--a Republican president, a Republican Congress and great prosperity for their hometown
and Dewey's, Owosso, Mich. Now contemplate a 1996 America in which the polls were right--a landslide-popular President
Clinton, a Democratic Congress, a widespread public yearning for a growing federal government.
Not quite the country we live in, it turns out. The polls this year were arguably further off than in 1948. Then,
Gallup's last poll, conducted from October 15 to 25, showed Dewey ahead 49 to 44 percent; on November 2, Truman won 50
to 45 percent. Gallup's numbers may actually have been right; it's possible for that many voters to switch in the last
eight days. But that excuse doesn't apply to 1996 surveys taken one or two days before the election. The most wrong was
CBS/New York Times, which showed Clinton leading Dole 53 to 35 percent. Five other major polls had Clinton ahead by
between 11 and 13 points, within the margin of error of the actual result but always more favorable to Clinton.
Polling on the congressional vote was off, too. Most polls asked the "generic vote" question: Which party's candidate
for the House of Representatives will you vote for? And most found Democrats ahead through most of the fall, by as much
as 10 points. But on Election Day Republican House candidates outpolled Democrats. Pollster Peter Hart, a Democrat (for
whom I am proud to have worked for seven years), argues that the question "Which party would you like to see control
Congress?" is a better indicator of actual voting and yields results that are about 2 points more Republican. Yet it
was asked by only a few polls, such as the NBC/Wall Street Journal's, which is conducted by Hart and Republican Robert
A commission? "Election polling had a terrible year in 1996," writes Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center for
Public Opinion Research. He proposes a commission to examine ways "to improve the accuracy of polling and of news
reports about the surveys' findings."
Why are the polls skewed to the left? Not through negligence: These media pollsters are conscientious and have worked
hard to improve their methods over the years. Also, there are simply too many survey takers doing too many polls--about
300 in fall 1996, compared with about 150 in 1992 and exactly 10 in 1968--for crude mistakes to explain the skew.
Something bigger seems to be at work, because pollsters around the world have seen this same phenomenon: Candidates of
the left don't do as well in elections as they do in the surveys just before elections. Conservative parties have
outperformed the last pre-election polls by about 3 points in Britain in 1992, in Ontario in 1995, in Italy and Israel
in 1996, as well as in the United States in 1994 and 1996. It starts to look like a meaningful trend.
This raises the possibility that some voters, many more on the right than the left, are refusing to respond or are
lying to pollsters. Refusal rates are up. And it seems pretty clear that many people lied to Voter News Service exit
pollsters in New Hampshire. Their exit poll showed Democrat Dick Swett leading Republican Sen. Bob Smith 52 to 47
percent; the actual vote was the other way around. "For some reason, Democrats in New Hampshire were more willing to
talk to us than Republicans," says VNS's Murray Edelman. "I don't have a good answer why."
One reason suggests itself: This is voters' reaction to the fact that mainline media coverage of public life is to the
left of where many citizens' sympathies lie. A Roper Center survey of Washington reporters and bureau chiefs found that
89 percent voted for Bill Clinton and 7 percent for George Bush in 1992; results for 1996 would surely be similar. And
while it is unusual for reporters and editors to consciously propagandize their audience, it is also absurd to pretend
that this imbalance has no effect on coverage.
Mainline media coverage in the United States, and in Italy, Israel and Ontario though not in Britain, often makes it
seem disreputable to vote for the right. So voters may hide their intentions, as they have in polls when they intend to
vote against candidates who are black. Political polls are worthless in authoritarian countries because respondents
tell pollsters what they think the authorities want to hear. It looks like political polls in democracies have become
worth less because respondents will tell pollsters only what they think the dominant media want to hear.