As I noted earlier this week, and then in my column at The Nation, conservatives have been steadying their nerves this week, as bad news for Romney-Ryan (and some other candidates) emerges daily from various polls, by claiming that liberal bias is skewing the surveys, and then hyping up the coverage, in Obama’s direction. This is laughable, given the vast number and variety of polls that are all going against the GOP, for now.
Today, we even observe Ross Douthat at The New York Times embracing the notion that one big reason Romney is trailing is the media’s "horse race" coverage—you know, it’s showing that he is trailing. Funny, right-wingers never complained about that until now, even though such coverage has dominated campaign coverage for decades.
But apart from this, the major claim of the past weeks has been this old saw: Hey, all the polls gave Carter a win over Reagan in 1980! And look what happened there! So Romney is in okay shape and if not will surge at the end, like St. Ronald.
Well, there are several possible responses to this:
1) Polling methods have, by all accounts, improved quite a bit since then, as proven in countless races, including presidential.
2) Also by all accounts, voters today are much more partisan and locked-in (partly because of their media choices) than they were in 1980, and less likely to bolt a candidate.
3) Reagan had a unique opportunity that Mitt will miss this year. There was only one presidential debate that year—and, believe it or not, it look place on October 28, little more than a week before Election Day. (One has to wonder which White House genius scheduled that one.) Reagan did very well in the debate, promoting a late surge. Not to mention: American hostages still held in Tehran.
4) Carter’s approval rating was about 30 percent while Obama’s is close to 50 percent.
But let’s also consider 5), and that is: the all-the-pollsters-were-wrong meme is actually false to begin with. See this article and graph, which show that contrary to myth, Reagan actually led in tracking polls for most of the final months of the campaign. Yet you will hear or read every day that Reagan charged from "far behind," according to the polls, to win, just like Romney can (will) do.
Let’s consider the most prominent poll of all. It’s true that Gallup’s final pre-debate poll showed a sinking Carter up by 3 percent—but a few days later its polling gave Reagan a 3 percent edge before Election Day. Of course, he won by more than that, but then again, Gallup does not poll on Election Day.
Also: even before the debate, two of the other leading polls at the time: AP and Harris/ABC, gave Reagan the lead. After the debate, they showed Reagan with a 5 percent margin. In fact, virtually every leading poll gave Reagan at least a 1 percent lead two or three days before the election, and many gave him a wider edge.
So, yes, this notion of the world being shocked by a Reagan win in 1980 is simply nonsense. I remember my only surprise at the time was that the GOP did so well in Senate races. Now I haven’t seen such a panic among Republican since Upton Sinclair was nearly elected governor of California in 1934. And in that case, Sinclair was a real socialist–not an imagined one.