Last Updated:November 26 @ 07:29 am

Towery: Remember 'Dewey Defeats Truman'

By Matt Towery

While this topic has been covered, it is now time to put real "meat on the bones" to explain why polling in this year's presidential contest, not just nationally but in many of the battleground states, may be off when compared to the actual results.

Looking at a vast array of polls coming out just two weeks before the presidential election, critically important states such as Florida and Ohio appear to be close and anyone's guess as to the final result. And while some national surveys, such as Gallup, have shown Republican nominee Mitt Romney running ahead of President Obama by several points, most have the race very tight, and a few have Obama leading. Let's examine one poll, released as a series of continuing surveys by a large television network joining with a respected national newspaper.

This particular poll, conducted Oct. 17-20, has no intended bias, since it is conducted jointly by both a Republican- and a Democrat-oriented polling firm. But read on, and you will quickly realize how the old style of polling and the way many polls "weight" raw results may be setting us up for one of the biggest polling disasters since the infamous polling blunders that led to the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline blunder of 1948.

Consider the following, using the above-referenced survey as just an example of how many "big league" polls are conducted. Let's look first at the questions asked of those who bother to answer the poll.

First, the poll has between 30 and 40 questions in it, depending on which questions a respondent is asked. Considering the fact that most questions take at least 30 seconds to read and some questions ask up to seven sub-questions, at bare minimum it takes 20 minutes to answer and more likely (just a guess) 30 minutes or more for some folks. So what hardworking, productive member of a family, taking care of a business, house or family, has time to spare for such an opus? Likely not the type that fits the profile of a Romney voter.

And it's hard to imagine a modern and sane cellphone user staying on the line so long -- but this poll includes 300 of them. Yeah, that fits my concept of cell users ... not.

But let's continue. This particular survey asks plenty of questions, such as whether the person answering the poll approves or disapproves of President Obama's job performance and how they feel about both Obama and Romney.

The person responding to the poll has not only been trapped into opining on President Obama's job approval, but their general "feelings" about the candidates. Now the "jury" is locked in by seemingly leading questions that they likely feel they must reflect when they are finally, several questions later, asked how they would vote for president.

So by the time the one question that will be at the top of ballots nationwide is reached, so many other positions and feelings have been expressed in taking the poll that many taking it might not utter the gut response that ultimately becomes a resolute vote.

Interestingly, in this particular survey, people seem to have much higher "positive or somewhat positive" feelings for the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. But later when they are asked which political party they would like to see control Congress, the split is nearly even.

Toward the end of the survey, we see that the percentage of individuals who identify themselves as "Strong Democrat" or "Strong Republican" is relatively low. More say they lean one direction or another or are independent and either lean toward one of the two parties or are just plain independent.

Many surveys being conducted not just nationally but in battleground states are weighted with a larger percentage of Democrat identified responses than Republican. And many, if not most, underrepresent the percent of voters who say they are independent.

In this particular survey, it's hard to tell how party identification is finally weighted. But plenty of other national and swing-state polls make it clear that Democrat responses are weighted higher and the percent of independent voters, who are marching in Romney's direction, are underrepresented.

Polling is an art more than a science, and pollsters do their best. It's just that 2012 is increasingly starting to look like a year in which the polls will have to catch up to reality quickly. There are fewer younger voters and not all voting Democrat this go around; less enthusiasm among the Democratic base; and a giant shift of independents from Obama in 2008 to Romney in 2012.

Anything can happen, but if the vote were held today, it might be a "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment for many pollsters.


Matt Towery heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage. Follow him on Twitter @matttowery.


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  1. NewsWatcherComment by NewsWatcher
    October 25, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    I lost respect for most polling a long time ago .. but here is a good example of what is wrong and what this article is saying (correctly IMO:)

    The Wisconsin recall election had it a dead heat .. too close to call .. based on recent and exit polling.
    Look at this headline and even read into the article:

    However, Governor Scott Walker won the recall with no trouble .. and by more than he won the actual election years earlier. Those same polls/exit polls showed Obama favored (with the same voters polled showing a tight recall election) by about 9 points. The press and liberals touted that fact (Obama’s big WI polling lead) EVEN THOUGH the polling showed flawed on the recall election itself .. absolutely ridiculous. Now look at Wisconsin, it is considered a toss up state for the presidential election within the margin of error (and who knows if that is correct or being skewed.

    I have said for years many of the polling organizations and media try to use it to support their biases and liberal candidates .. trying to demoralized a group not to vote if they think there is no reason to vote.

    There is not a single thing that should have Obama within 6 to 10 points of Romney .. counting the economy, counting Libya, counting the national debt, counting he is the only president to oversee an administration that never passed a budget, I could go on and on and on and on…

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  2. Jack TComment by Jack T
    October 25, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    I like NewsWatcher have long ago lost any confidence in polls.

    I have come to the conclusion there are too many ways to skew any poll from the way questions are framed and the order in which questions are asked to the selection of those polled. Most polls are designed NOT to find out what people think and how they will act but to influence them to respond in a particular way. I believe both conservative and progressive pollsters are guilty. I don’t trust any polls.

    I will not answer any more telephone calls from pollsters. Although I have rarely been polled anyway. I believe the polls are a TOTAL FRAUD. But I recognize we have a vast number of individuals who are just lemmings who are influenced by the polls.

    For several years I have maintained we should outlaw polls and on the other hand make a potential voter pass an intelligence test before they are allowed to vote. Too many politicians have been voted into office because of an ignorant electorate.

    I received an humorous email a few months ago that sums up my concern. The email went something like the following: What happens if a majority of stupid voters vote? The answer: the democrat wins.

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  3. jjb54Comment by jjb54
    October 25, 2012 @ 4:03 pm

    You know the WALKER RECALL VOTE is a great example.

    Yes, I remember reading, WALKER “DEAD”. Union’s/Dems were headed for a BIG WIN! (Oops and exactly right – those polls obviously were not only wrong — but “DEAD WRONG” –

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  4. highsiderComment by highsider
    October 25, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    I think that most pollsters (and Media) would just give you a blank look if you warneed them of a DDT year coming up, but they will be finding out.

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    • canada3dayerComment by canada3dayer
      October 25, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

      a DDT year? huh?

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  5. BobinmsComment by Bobinms
    October 25, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    Yes, and the polls said Harry Reed would lose. There is no poll that takes into account the illegal votes.

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  6. AbbyComment by Abby
    October 25, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

    How can Romney win when the voting machines are rigged? Several machines are giving Obama the vote when Romney is selected. And there is no way to track or correct or even know this is happening. nly if a person is diligent when casting his/her vote and watches the result as it is being tallied, will this false action be noted.
    If Obama wins, it won’t be because he was chosen; it will be because of false practices, etc. This includes not only machine rigging but also illegal voters, dead people and pets.
    We need to get this matter straightened out, or have a revote. We need some way to ensure votes are counted correctly. At this time, this is not happening.
    Whaat happened with the Reid election is happening again with the Obama election.

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    • jjb54Comment by jjb54
      October 25, 2012 @ 7:41 pm


      First off there is no evidence that they are rigged. Are they flawed, yes. After all, they are made by humans. Have you ever had a MAN MADE PRODUCT NOT FAIL? It has been brought to media and national attention and thus, trust me there are eyes WATCHING THIS.

      I mean, I know some DEMS that are all up in arms because Romney has investments in some voting machines. Are those RIGGED? No. Will some of them fail? Yes. But not because of some conspiracy … but because of inperfect man-made products.

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    • cdrcodyComment by cdrcody
      October 26, 2012 @ 11:11 am

      jjb54 – You could be right. Then again you could be wrong. A voting machine malfunction, if you want to call it that, could be the result of the machine acting up or it could be something else. As a former computer programmer I know how easy it is to make that machine do whatever you want it to do. You could, if you wanted to, show one result on the screen or on a printed tape given to the voter and have another result put into the official count recorded in the machine. It can be done by an amateur with only a couple dozen lines of code at the most. And there is no way to tell from the outside.

      Test runs don’t help either. Because if you are rigging the machine it will show a correct test and then change the actual vote. The only reliable test, possibly, would be to tell the machine it is an actual vote then run a couple of hundred votes through it and check the result. You have to go a couple of hundred votes because test runs are usually short and the machine can be set to catch that. And there even ways to get around that such as checking the date by the internal clock or other methods.

      People aren’t taught to think logically these days, but that’s how computers think if you call what they do thinking. The computer is so incredibly stupid it does exactly what you tell it to do not what you want it to do. I shudder when I see some of the software that is produced now a days. So the problem could also be inept programming and not just a conscious effort to defraud.

      I remember Nevada back in 2010. There were complaints that Harry Reid’s name was checked off on the screen even before you started to vote. In the evening Reid was losing by about five or six percent. The next morning when the totals were announced he won by almost ten percent. The only safe way is to forget about punch cards or electronic machines and use a paper ballot where you fill in a circle with your trusty number two pencil. The ballots are then put through an optical scanner to count the spots. But remember, the scanner is also a computer. If there is any kind of a question the ballots can be checked by hand.

      Do a youtube search on voting machines rigged and you can see how easy it is. Note the testimony by a programmer before a committee.

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