Wouldn't Touch It with a Ten-Foot Poll
We hear a great deal about the polls measuring the relative electoral strengths today of President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. For weeks the candidates have been running neck-and-neck, as in the fascinating Rasmussen "Daily Tracking Poll." Electoral swing states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado gain extra attention, with swings of three points raising eyebrows. Of course, at the same time, pundits note no real movement in most polls despite weeks of Obama's negative campaigning against Romney's private-enterprise experience, his repeated demands that Romney release a decade of tax records beyond anything that any law in this country requires, and a series of Obama autocratic enactments aimed at pandering to discrete voting blocs: holding down interest on student loans, ordering non-enforcement of immigration laws, stating that he will visit Israel at the start of second presidential term, promoting jealousy and social division between and among economic classes, and on and on.
Amid the polls upon polls, we look back at specifics from an election thirty-two years ago. The Democrats' candidate was incumbent President Jimmy Carter, seeking re-election. The Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan of California, had been a two-term governor but also was depicted as a dangerous war-monger as well as a Hollywood buffoon. In the mix, Rep. John Anderson ran as a third-party candidate. The election would take place on November 4, 1980.
January 29, 1980. The ABC-Lou Harris Poll headlines: "Carter Now Far Ahead of Both Reagan and Bush." The survey explains: "President Carter so dominates the American political scene now that his margin over Ronald Reagan in a post-Iowa trial heat has risen to an overwhelming 65-31 percent. ... So-called 'swing' groups of voters, whose support is indispensable to either party in a close election, are also going for Carter by massive margins."
March 10, 1980. The ABC-Lou Harris Poll headlines: "Ford Leads Both Carter and Reagan." In the poll, Republican voters express a preference that ex-President Gerald R. Ford, who remains eligible to run for the White House, seek the presidency as their party's candidate against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Among Republicans, he outpolls former California Governor Ronald Reagan by 36-32 percent. The same poll measures how Reagan would do if pitted directly against President Carter among the broader electorate, including Democrats and independents. Reagan trails Carter by a whopping 58-40 percent. The prior November, Carter led Reagan by 53-44 percent. So Carter is pulling away from Reagan even more dramatically. "In the test runs among the total electorate, Reagan runs behind Carter in every region, except the South, where the two are in a 49-49 percent dead heat."
April 1, 1980. Gallup has Carter leading Reagan by 48-43 percent. On May 15, 1980, the Christian Science Monitor reports on a new ABC-Lou Harris poll showing that third-party candidate John Anderson now is almost even with both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Anderson is at 29 percent, Carter at 31, and Reagan at 35. A month later, the Washington Post headlines on June 19: "Carter, Reagan in Dead Heat, Poll Reports."
Spring 1980. Gallup has Carter ahead of Reagan by 43 to 35 percent.
Reagan starts moving into higher gear in July, as the Republican Party convention pummels Carter, but amid reports of Reagan gaining momentum, the Washington Post headlines on August 10: "New Polls Show Closer '80 Race: New Polls Suggest Carter-Reagan Race Getting Tighter." On September 14, the Washington Post has Reagan and Carter tied at 37 percent, with Carter starting to run away with the South. On September 21, the New York Times headlines: "New Poll in Texas Shows Carter Leading Reagan." The poll shows Carter leading by 42-34 percent. Similarly, on September 28, the Washington Post headlines: "Carter Gains on Reagan in Virginia Polls . . . Statistics Cast Doubt on Certainty of November Victory for the GOP."
On October 20, the CBS-New York Times poll has Carter beating Reagan by 43-41. On October 25, ABC-Harris has Reagan ahead by three points at 45-42. However, Gallup reports the next day that Carter is ahead 45-42. On October 27, CBS-New York Times has Carter ahead 42-39. On October 30, the Washington Post has Carter ahead by 43-39. The CBS-New York Times poll of November 1, 1980 shows some Reagan movement as the race reaches the wire, with the governor inching ahead 44-43, well within the margin of error. Gallup has Reagan up by three points that day. Finally, on election eve, November 3, 1980, the New York Times headlines this story by Adam Clymer: "Reagan and Carter Stand Nearly Even in Last Polls[.]"
The actual vote takes place on November 4. Ronald Reagan receives 51 percent of the vote, Carter a paltry 41 percent. It is a landslide.
Today, we live in the 24-hour news cycle. With cable news emblazoning another non-urgent "Fox News Alert" every five minutes, while CNN and MSNBC desperately compete, all augmented by better talk radio than we had before Rush Limbaugh emerged on the scene, we understandably are hungry for the latest daily tracking, and the free-enterprise system obligingly feeds us. It therefore is valuable to look back on the 1980 polls to remember that the real election and the polls that matter begin in earnest only with the two national party conventions: the Republicans in Tampa, Florida from August 27-30, and the Democrats (the ones not afraid to be photographed attending, at least) in Charlotte, North Carolina's Time Warner Cable Arena from September 4-6.
We may expect that Romney will surge ahead from the gridlock by the end of August and that Obama will re-tighten it after he appears amid Greek or Roman columns -- whichever are lighter to deliver and cheaper to rent. Nevertheless, we also may anticipate that the Republicans will have so much more material to shellac during their four days, and the two conventions may end with a few points' gap finally opening.
As Labor Day passes, people will start paying closer attention. Romney will be allowed by law to start spending from his campaign war chest, and his advertising will shift into a new gear. People will be tired of hearing about Romney's dog and his taxes and Bain Capital. They will become more interested in hearing about unemployment and disappointing jobs reports and misery indices. They will want to know how their Senate and House candidates will vote on repealing the ObamaCare they want repealed.
Interest groups on the right will become increasingly riled, setting aside misgivings about Romney, surging into orbit as they contemplate the looming prospect of four more years of Obama if they falter. Latino voters will be invited to consider how much higher their jobless numbers have risen under Obama and to wonder why Obama did not address immigration issues when he and Pelosi controlled the House handily, while Harry Reid had a filibuster-proof Senate. Seniors will learn that their Medicare is imperiled by ObamaCare. College students, who were so jazzed four years ago about hope and change, will be less inclined to miss class or a concert or a TV episode on their laptops or iPads for the sketchy purpose of casting a vote for the president who has consigned them to the worst unemployment numbers that young people have known in generations, with bleak prospects in the forecast.
And then there will be whatever debates transpire. They can be ultimate game-changers. Reagan won his elections at the debate podium. Ford lost his when he painted himself into a corner, claiming that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet hegemony. John McCain was awful -- too polite, too correct, too little. He let Obama talk down to him, calling him "John," and he let Obama slip one misstatement after another past him. He was too polite to discuss Obama's associations with Rev. Jeremiah Wright or unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers or Tony Rezko. In short, as tough and heroic as he was in uniform, McCain was not suited to the task of running for president of the United States.
We now know Obama. He is oh-so-cool, never touches a banister as he walks down the airplane steps, performs on late-night talk shows. Yet he is not the Great Communicator. He is only as smooth as his nearest teleprompter. He can be challenged, and he has to defend numbers and facts that are not only appalling, but outright embarrassing: unemployment exceeding 8 percent, real underemployment at close to 15 percent, a national debt grown to 16 trillion, national security leaks from his White House, Fast and Furious, Solyndra, the Keystone pipeline. It will be Romney's election to lose, and if Romney is not ready for Obama after some twenty Republican primary debates that spanned six months between August 2011 and February 2012, then he never will be.
However, whether Romney is ready or not, the poll numbers that matter will unfold in the final weeks or days, the way they always do.
Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.