The Magazine

It Ain't Over Till It's Over

The case against pessimism.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By JAMES PIERESON
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With just two weeks left before the election, John McCain faces a difficult test in overcoming the lead established by Barack Obama over the past month. An ever-growing number of national polls showed Obama with a lead last week of somewhere between 3 and 14 points--though few people outside the Obama camp gave much credit to the latter margin, reported in a CBS News/New York Times poll. Most polls were in a cluster with an estimated Obama lead of 5 to 7 points. The race thus remains surprisingly close, especially in view of the headwinds blowing against McCain from the financial turmoil that erupted into public view in mid-September.

Notwithstanding this fact, however, many pundits, pollsters, and public figures have rushed forward to declare the race over and Obama the presumptive winner. Liberal columnists, such as E.J. Dionne and Harold Meyerson, have declared that Obama's pending victory will mark the end of the conservative era and doom for the low tax and free market policies favored by Republicans since the late 1970s. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid are already developing a legislative agenda that they will introduce in Congress in January in cooperation with the new Democratic administration. Senator Obama himself is said to be making plans for an election night victory celebration.

If John McCain can find any solace in these developments, it must be in the fact that his role has been clarified as the underdog who has been written off as a loser by the pundits and pollsters. The premature gloating on view among liberal columnists and the postelection plans being made by Obama and his allies might be turned by McCain to his own advantage. If there is anything voters do not like, it is being taken for granted by politicians.

There is some precedent in the elections of 1948, 1968, and 1976 for the kind of late in the game comeback that McCain must now try to engineer. In the tumultuous election of 1968, Senator Hubert Humphrey trailed Richard Nixon by 12 points (43 to 31 percent) in a Gallup poll published on October 22. George Wallace, the third party candidate that year, claimed 20 percent of the vote. Nixon's lead was undiminished in late October from where it stood when the campaign began in early September. Many declared the race over, as Nixon began announcing plans for the transition. Less than a week later, however, Humphrey had chiseled the lead down to 8 points (44 to 36 percent), mainly at the expense of Wallace's vote, which dropped to 15 percent.

The final Gallup poll, released on the day before the election, gave Nixon a two point lead, 42 to 40 percent--in other words, a dead heat. Humphrey surged in the last weeks of the campaign by playing upon longstanding fears among Democrats about Nixon's character and by persuading conservative Democrats to abandon Wallace. In the end, his rally fell short as Nixon won by less than 1 percent of the vote, just 500,000 votes nationwide.

Gerald Ford's furious finish against Jimmy Carter in 1976 was of a different character than the Humphrey rally, which proceeded by bringing traditional Democrats back into the fold. Ford was able to cut into -Carter's lead by appealing to independent voters who by 1976 represented more than a third of the electorate (here perhaps some precedent for McCain). Ford had trailed Carter by more than 30 points in polls taken in July and by 18 points in late August. His pardon of President Nixon in early September combined with the difficult economic conditions of the mid-1970s led many to conclude that the race was over before it even began.

Ford did not help himself with a blunder in the second presidential debate whereby he denied that Eastern Europeans lived under Soviet domination. Yet by raising questions about Carter's competence to lead and by attacking Carter's promise to pardon all Vietnam draft resisters, he cut the lead to 6 points by mid-October. On the eve of the election, the polls declared the race a dead heat. A Gallup poll taken on the last weekend of the race even gave Ford a 1 point lead, 47 to 46 percent. In the end, the structural obstacles to his campaign (a bad economy and the hangover from Watergate) were too much for Ford to overcome. He lost by two points nationally, 50 to 48 percent.

The most dramatic electoral comeback of modern times was, of course, Harry Truman's victory over Governor Thomas Dewey in the election of 1948. Public opinion polling was then still in its infancy, and Truman's surprise victory came close to discrediting the industry altogether. At that time there were just two major polling organizations, Gallup and Roper, both of which reported significant leads for Dewey. Elmo Roper, much to his regret, took a single poll in early September giving Dewey a 15-point lead (53 to 38 percent) and abandoned the field for the rest of the campaign in the belief that the race was over. A Gallup poll also taken in early September gave Dewey a 12-point lead (48 to 36 percent), with third-party candidate Henry Wallace at 5 percent. A later poll taken in mid-October gave Dewey a more slender lead of 46 to 40 percent with Wallace's vote taken down to 4 percent. The final Gallup poll taken on October 25 and reported in the press a few days later, gave Dewey a 5 point lead, 49 to 44 percent (or a lead very close to the one Obama now has over McCain). In the final results, Truman won by 5 points nationally, 50 to 45 percent.

The Gallup organization also conducted surveys in each of the 50 states on the basis of which George Gallup, in an article published in the Washington Post on October 29, predicted that Dewey would win 363 electoral votes and President Truman 140 (with a few states too close to allocate). According to his estimates, Dewey was ahead by 10 points in Illinois, 7 points in California, 11 points in Ohio, 15 points in both Iowa and Wisconsin, and 7 points in Massachusetts. Truman carried every one of these states (narrowly) in the election, for a swing of 116 electoral votes in his favor.

Truman, confident of a victory, ridiculed the pollsters in the final days of the election. "You can throw the Gallup poll right in the ashcan," he said, adding that "there will be more red-faced pollsters on November 3 than there were in 1936 when they had to fold up The Literary Digest." The day after the election, the New York Times, in vindication of Truman's forecast, published an article under the headline, "Election Prophets Ponder in Dismay," in which the heads of the leading polling organizations acknowledged that they did not pick up the late trend in favor of Truman. Polling experts learned from harsh experience that, in order to forecast accurate results, they had to continue taking surveys right up to Election Day.

Truman succeeded in gaining ground on Dewey by casting himself as an aggressive alternative to his cool and detached opponent who seemed to be coasting to the finish in the belief that his election was a foregone conclusion. Truman encouraged his supporters by telling them over and over again that he was going to win the election, notwithstanding what the polls and editorial pages were saying. He did not attack Dewey personally so much as he ridiculed the "no good 80th Congress" which (he claimed) took sides in favor of business against labor unions. Humphrey and Ford rallied in the closing weeks of the 1968 and 1976 elections by raising doubts about the character or competence of their opponents. Both, however, were so far behind when they launched their rallies that they could never quite erase their disadvantages.

Fortunately for his campaign, McCain does not trail by so large a margin as that which Humphrey and Ford had to overcome. Indeed, McCain's challenge is not dissimilar to that which faced Truman in the final weeks of the 1948 campaign--that is, overcoming a 5-point or so lead against a relatively unknown and aloof opponent who seems assured of victory. McCain, like Truman, is burdened by an unpopular administration of his own party, though, in contrast to -Truman, he has some chance of disassociating himself from it. Somewhat like Truman in 1947 and 1948, McCain has been preoccupied with foreign policy at a time when economic issues have seized the headlines. Many pundits in 1948 said that the New Deal era was about to end, just as some have said recently that the Reagan-Thatcher era will soon be over. Truman proved the pundits wrong in 1948, and there remains a slender chance that McCain might do so again in 2008.

James Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism.