The Nonscientific Reality Behind US Election Polls
The worst mistake a political analyst can make is to offer predictions about future events. The study of politics is
nowhere close to being an exact science, and in fact makes meteorology look downright precise. This has not stopped
those who study politics for a living from calling themselves “scientists,” and from attempting to emulate the real
sciences when describing political phenomena in terms of absolutes, trends, and indexes of predictability. At best, this
is informed opinion masquerading as fact, and at worst it is nothing more than playing at being economists. Unlike the
laws of nature and physics that govern scientific inquiry, or the stylized models upon which most macroeconomic theory
is premised, the study of real human political behaviour is as contingent and precarious as the subject is fickle and
unpredictable. Thus political analysis is no more than an exercise in focused speculation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of those who conduct political opinion polls. Consider, for example, the
polls that showed Mark Latham and John Howard in a near dead heat in the run-up to the recently concluded Australian
national election. Needless to say, the pollsters proved wrong, much to Mr. Latham’s chagrin. But to really understand
the deception potentially inherent in political opinion surveys, we must look to those conducted in the United States,
where election polling is considered to be at its highest stage of evolution. Case in point: the current race for
With less than a week to go before the US presidential election, most opinion polls show that the contest is neck and
neck, with Republican George W. Bush slightly ahead of Democrat John Kerry by 2-4 points either side of the 50 percent
mark. These figures may be misleading. Leave aside for the moment all the voting irregularities being discovered, the
attempts (mostly Republican) at voter suppression now being given wide exposure, and the massive (mostly Democratic)
voter turn-out drives currently underway (including unprecedented efforts to register Americans living abroad), all of
which lies outside the purview of polling surveys. Ignore the fact that people lie and misrepresent their views in
sample groups for a variety of reasons. Forget that polls commissioned by partisan groups tend to reflect the wishes of
those paying for them.
The real issue, which the polls do not show, is this: no incumbent US president should be, one week out from a
re-election opportunity, anywhere within 10 points of a challenger, especially when that challenger is an nondescript
Washington insider with relatively weak Party support and a 20 year voting record to harp on. Presidents who have
recently found themselves in such a position (that is, running abreast of their opponents a week before the election),
Jimmy Carter and George Bush senior in particular (who both faced Washington outsiders in the guise of former state
governors Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, respectively), have inevitably lost by wide margins. Al Gore, for all his Vice
Presidential advantage and long-term Washington connections, also lost to a former governor, George W. Bush, in an race
that was his to win and which should never have been close enough to be decided by a few hundred “hanging chads” in a
state that Dubya’s brother happened to govern (although Gore did win the national popular vote). Thus, tightness of the
polls might indicate something other than closeness in the presidential race, but it takes more than quasi-scientific
measurement to figure that out.
To be sure, no Senator has won the US presidency since John F. Kennedy, much less one from the New England saddled with
the dreaded “liberal” label. In fact, be it Carter, Reagan, Clinton or Bush the second, state governorship is the surest
way to presidential office in recent US history. Moreover, Kerry has to make major electoral inroads in the South if he
is to win, and it is clear that his Vice Presidential partner selected to that end, John Edwards (Senator from South
Carolina), has not produced the results on that score that were hoped for.
Hence the election remains one for Bush to lose, not Kerry to win. It is clear that Kerry appears both patrician and
less than inspirational when delivering his election promises, while Bush engenders a visceral sense of common man
kinship while on the campaign stump. But Bush also inspires deep fear as well as support. In fact, he campaigns on fear,
saying that his re-election is the only way to preserve freedom, prevent another terrorist attack on the US and defeat
evil on earth. In calculated irony, he accuses Kerry of fear mongering when the latter points out US political failures
in Iraq and elsewhere (which is said to only encourage the enemy). What the President apparently does not realise is
that as many if not more voters fear him as much if not more than they do the disappeared Osama bin-Laden and his
al-Qaeda cohorts. And that is not the half of the un-polled story.
Given the context of fear in which the election is being held, the Democratic base vote is expanding and coalescing
while the Republican base narrows. The latter suffers from serious fractures and defections as a result of Iraq and
domestic policy, particularly among Arab-Americans, Pat Buchanan-type isolationists, some Christian evangelicals with
concerns about the war (one of whom, Pat Robertson, has publicly claimed that president Bush told him there would be “no
causalities” in Iraq), members of the white unemployed working class disfavoured by the president’s tax policies and
corporate orientation, joined by military families dismayed by the lies used to go to war and the ensuing costs thereof
(to include the spectre of a military draft), Hispanic Americans torn between issues of conservative morality versus
issues of common sense in both domestic and foreign policy (to include the previously homogenous Cuban-American vote in
what is an otherwise diverse Hispanic electorate), and those elements of the middle classes and other traditionally
Republican communities unassociated with the neoconservative, fundamentalist Christian ideology that underpins the Bush
administration world view.
It will be left to large corporate agents, the extreme Christian right, the egotistically wealthy, Republican Party
stalwarts, anti-equality militants and visceral nationalists to rescue this president’s election night aspirations. That
may not be enough.
That is because the Democrats have a late groundswell building. Along with the Republican defectors, traditional
Democratic supporters, including African Americans, gays, feminists, political moderates, artists, the intelligentsia
and youth, have set aside their parochial differences and rallied around the common enemy represented by George W. Bush.
John Kerry may not awe them, but they universally fear and loathe the president. This time around the Democrat
progressive wing will not be swayed by Ralph Nader’s candidacy, which looks more and more like a Republican
divide-and-conquer front in a race where the stakes are too high to engage in protest and principled voting.
Torn in its partisan orientation, organised labour is no longer the political force it once was, so its loss to the
Democrats as a monolithic bloc is far less damaging than ten or twenty years ago (as would-be presidential candidate
Dick Gephardt painfully found out). Having waited until the last weeks of the campaign, and with no good news or
compelling October diversion to sway them in Bush’s favour, the majority of undecided voters will vote for change
because things will not get significantly better otherwise, and could get much worse if the present policies are
continued at home and abroad.
This emerging voting bloc is reaffirmed in its common view by the unrelenting litany of bad news that is the stuff of
the US press, not only in Iraq but in terms of the domestic economy, the environment, civil liberties, relations with
traditional allies, the US image abroad and, of course, all of the strange shenanigans surrounding the elections. In
their common enemy rather than in their candidate, Democrats have found a cause. Thus, as the Republican base atomizes,
the Democratic base regroups and attracts the support of others.
If things were going well for President Bush (and the US), none of this would be relevant. He would be leading by a
comfortable margin, and the election outcome would be a forgone conclusion. But if that were the case then the pollsters
would have no following, which means less of an audience, prestige and money directed towards their “scientific”
pontifications. So unless the president or his opponent is winning by a landslide, it might not be in the pollster’s
self-interest to declare the contest over. In this case it might well be, but the tilt is in the contender’s direction.
Hence, although violating the admonition outlined at the onset and at the risk of professional embarrassment should the
pollsters prove right, here is a prediction: George W. Bush will lose the election by 5 percentage points or more, on a
general ballot favouring John Kerry by about 52-46% (with Nader picking up most of the residual vote). Bush may still
win the electoral college if most of the so-called swing states (Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
Wisconsin) go his way, but with such a split in the popular vote it will be harder for him to assert a mandate by
legally contested means.
If this prediction proves right, you can say that you read it here first. If it is wrong, the author takes refuge in the
pollster’s claim that it is an inexact science that was never claimed to be one hundred percent accurate. And if that
fails, the reader is referred to astrology, palm reading and crystal ball gazing, all of which have as much predictive
capacity as does that discipline known as the “science” of politics.
Paul G. Buchanan is a Senior Lecturer in Political Studies (not Science) at the University of Auckland.