On Tuesday, November 14, exactly one week after Election Day (and with no President yet in sight), a notable though little-noted disclosure was made to the public. I do not mean the news that the federal judge in Florida had turned down the Republicans’ stop-the-hand-count motion, or the news that Bush’s lead in Florida was now 388 votes, or the news that a Florida state judge had waffled on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’s decree that no county votes would be counted if reported after the 5 pm deadline that afternoon, or, for that matter, anything else that was happening in the murk of the Sunshine State. I mean the news that, according to a poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News, 45 percent of the public wanted George Bush to become President whereas only 44 percent wanted Al Gore to become President (6 percent wanted “neither,” 4 percent had no opinion and 1 percent wanted “other”). The claim was all the more striking in view of the hard contemporaneous fact that in the most recent count of the actual vote of November 7, Gore led Bush by a nationwide margin of 222,880 votes.
If anyone ever had doubts that politics in the United States is dominated by polling, this poll should put an end to them. A major poll was, in a manner of speaking, calling the election a full week after the vote–and reversing the known results.
The polls had been mercifully silent since the election. Many had good reason to be. Five of seven major ones had been “wrong” about the outcome of the election. That is, their final counts had failed to reflect the winner on Election Day (though some, it’s true, were within the margin of error). The New York Times/CBS “final” poll, which put Bush at 46 percent and Gore at 41 percent, had the margin wrong by more than five points and Gore’s final tally off by eight points. The Battleground poll, which gave Bush 50 percent to Gore’s 45 percent, likewise got the margin wrong by five points. Others were more modestly in error. CNN gave Bush 48 percent and Gore 46 percent; in the Washington Post it was Bush 48 and Gore 45; and in the Pew Research Center poll (with undecided voters counted), it was Bush 49, Gore 47. Only the Zogby poll, which put Gore ahead in the popular vote by 48 to 46 percent, and a CBS election-morning tracking poll, which gave Gore 45 percent and Bush 44 percent, picked the right winner in the popular vote, and with a margin close to the actual result. All in all, Gore’s victory in the popular vote came as a surprise. Of course, it’s not literally true that the polls were wrong, since there is a margin of error, and people can change their minds between the day of the poll and the election. On the other hand, election results are the only check on the accuracy of polling that there is–they are to polling what experimentation is to scientific hypothesis–and there is no reason to suppose that a poll whose final measure is 8 percentage points off the election result is not 8 percentage points off year in, year out.
Considering the decisive importance that polling had throughout the race in every aspect of the campaign, including media coverage, fundraising and campaign strategy (in the last few weeks of the election, hearts were lifting and falling on single-point fluctuations in poll numbers), these discrepancies deserved much reflection. The reason they did not get it was that on election night the magicians of public opinion went on to make even more egregious and momentous errors, by prematurely predicting the winner in Florida twice and the winner of the national election once. (The election-night calls made by the television networks, which in turn are based on exit polling done by a single, nearly anonymous firm, the Voter News Service, are not quite the same as opinion polling, since they record a deed–voting–rather than an opinion, but their use of sampling techniques to predict outcomes places them in the same general category as other polls.)
The last of these mistakes, of course, led a credulous Gore to concede the election and then, minutes later, to retract the concession. For a few hours, the networks and the candidates appeared to have assumed the power to decide the election between them. There is every reason to believe, for instance, that George Bush would now be President-elect if, moments before his concession speech, Gore had not got the news that Florida had been declared undecided again. If Gore’s concession had gone unretracted, Bush had made his acceptance speech and the country had gone to bed believing it had made its decision, it is scarcely imaginable that the close results in Florida would have been contested. Even now, many observers await a concession by one or another of the candidates as the decisive event. But it is not up to either the networks or the candidates to decide who is to be President; that matter is left under the Constitution to the voters, whose will, no matter how narrowly expressed, must be ascertained.
Then a week later, the polls that had played such an important and misleading role in the election were weighing in again, this time on the Florida battle. The poll that brought the startling, seemingly counterfactual news that Bush led Gore in the public’s preference also revealed that six out of ten voters were opposed to legal challenges to the Florida results–possibly bad news for Gore, who had been considering a legal challenge to the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County. However, observers who did not like that conclusion could find comfort on the same day in a New York Times/CBS poll, which reported that another 6 in 10 were unworried about a delay in finally deciding upon the next President–good news for Gore, who had been relying on time-consuming hand recounts to erase Bush’s narrow lead.
If, however, the arts of reading public opinion helped get us into our current mess, perhaps we can take comfort from the hope that they can also help us get out of it. Many observers have suggested that by failing to produce a clear mandate, the ever-changing vote-count of the year 2000–let’s call it the Butterfly Election–will cripple the presidency of the winner. They need not worry too much. In our day, it is not only–perhaps not even mainly–elections that create mandates, once every four years. It is polling data that, day in and day out, create our impressions, however incompletely or inaccurately, of what the public wants. Let the new President act in a way that the public approves, as determined by a poll or two, and he will have all the mandate he needs to govern.