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When the Polls Got It Wrong

It was 1936 and I had just cast my first vote with the expectation that I had helped elect Alf Landon to the presidency. After all, the Literary Digest had declared Mr. Landon the victor, and its polls were never wrong.

I vividly remember walking over to City Hall in my hometown of Urbana, Ill., to vote. My father, who accompanied me, also seemed very sure that Landon would defeat Franklin Roosevelt. After all, the newspaper that everyone read and swore by in downstate Illinois, the Chicago Tribune, also was saying Landon would win. What more did we need to know to be assured that President Roosevelt was to get only one term in the White House?

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We voted in a hall just outside the room Dad occupied when he was city engineer. Now he was county surveyor, an elective office. So he was on the ballot that day, and I had the pleasure of voting for him.

A story I am fond of telling is how my father "beat" Roosevelt in 1932. Our county, Champaign, had been Republican since the days of Lincoln and the beginning of the party. But in '32 the FDR national landslide swept in Democrats in all of our local county offices - all except Dad and the county treasurer. My father won by about a dozen votes; the treasurer's winning margin was six, as I recall.

Well, it will come as no surprise to readers of this column that Dad and I turned out to be wrong. Landon didn't quite make it. In fact, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum's father won only two states. Republicans did have somewhat of a revival in our county, but not much. Dad won again - staying in office for 40 years in election after election - and by a much bigger margin this time.

That Literary Digest poll was discredited, and the magazine itself never recovered from the embarrassment.

Polling has gotten better, but it's still not infallible. We all remember when the polls and the political observers of the day "elected" President Thomas Dewey. In retrospect it seems to me that it was a rather plain-looking fellow from Missouri who confounded the experts and won that 1948 race for the White House.

Harry Truman's biographers have all cited his barnstorming train swing through the Midwest as the event that turned the tide in his direction. Historian David McCullough writes of the events that occurred on Monday, Oct. 11, 1948, when Truman began to win over the crowds.

After a "dreary start" in central Ohio, Mr. McCullough tells us, "the crowds began to get bigger and more responsive. And by the time Truman arrived that evening in Akron, the crowds were tumultuous." Truman told his audience: "I have lived a long time - 64 years - and I have traveled a lot, but I have never seen such turnouts.... That's why we're going to win."

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However, reporters on that train, arguably the best in the political writing business, saw this Truman revival but missed its implications. A Newsweek poll of 50 of these so-called sages taken at the end of that ride showed that all predicted Dewey would win. When presidential adviser Clark Clifford showed Truman the poll, he looked at it and said: "I know every one of those 50 fellows. There isn't one of them who has enough sense to pound sand in a rathole."

As a reporter I closely covered the 1956 Minnesota presidential primary, in which the Minnesota poll showed that Adlai Stevenson would defeat Estes Kefauver. That poll also had never been wrong. But it missed that one and never fully explained why it had fallen flat on its face.

There are so many carefully and somewhat "scientifically" conducted polls today. There are checks, cross-checks, and daily hotlines seeking voter opinions. So pollsters shouldn't be muffing the current presidential contest.

But if about Oct. 13 Bob Dole begins to stir up the crowds, it might be a good idea to pay attention.

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