In 1948, the neophyte President was struggling. Never having held an executive position in his life, Harry S Truman was a surprise choice when F.D.R. chose him to take over for Henry Wallace; Truman found himself unexpectedly thrust into the Presidency only three months after taking office. Although he made some significant decisions, Truman was widely derided as rudderless and went into the 1948 election year with a paltry 36% approval rating. Through a series of wise political decisions, Truman ended up beating New York governor Thomas Dewey by 5% and 114 Electoral College votes.
Of course, the most famous image from this race was:
It wasn’t just the Chicago Trib… Life, The New York Times and most major newspapers tailored their coverage in the days before the election to the impending Dewey presidency. Why were they so confident? Because all the polls told them that the Republicans were destined for power… George Gallup confidently said Dewey by five to fifteen points. Why were they so wrong? Because the pollsters conducted their surveys over the telephone… in 1948, telephone ownership was still in its infancy and most were owned by rich Republicans. And because, believing that most people made up their minds early, pollers stopped bothering asking with weeks to go.
The Economist has an interesting article wondering if polls have once again become unreliable. The reason? Another massive shift in our telephone habits. The rise of the cellular phone has apparently wreaked havoc with polls. A quarter of the U.S. now only has cellphones. For a variety of reasons (calling cells is more expensive; caller ID; rules against calling cells with recordings), budget-cutting news and poll organizations have shied away from dealing with cell-only owners, leading to skewed results. Which way are the results biased? Well, cell-only users are younger, poorer and non-whitier, so take a guess.
Not to say that this fall, or even next, it will happen. But sometime soon a progressive candidate will shock the world because polling is overcounting wealthy home phone owners. And the shot of the winner holding up a website headline on his iPad will become iconic.