For­get opin­ion poll ma­nia; real ac­tion is election night

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jules Wit­cover Jules Wit­cover is a syn­di­cated colum­nist and for­mer long­time writer for The Bal­ti­more Sun. His lat­est book is “The Amer­i­can Vice Pres­i­dency: From Ir­rel­e­vance to Power” (Smith­so­nian Books). His email is juleswit­cover@com­cast.net.

As Amer­ica’s vot­ers pon­der which of the two ma­jor-party pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees they dis­like less this year, polls con­tinue to flood the po­lit­i­cal mar­ket­place re­port­ing a tight­en­ing race be­tween them.

A re­cent CNN/ORC sur­vey, de­fy­ing a pub­lic per­cep­tion that Hil­lary Clin­ton could be head­ing to­ward a land­slide over Don­ald Trump in Novem­ber, ac­tu­ally re­ported him edg­ing ahead of her na­tion­ally by 2 per­cent­age points. How can this be?

The sim­ple an­swer is that we don’t elect pres­i­dents by the na­tional pop­u­lar vote; we do so by the vote of the Elec­toral Col­lege, a non-ma­tric­u­lat­ing, non-ed­u­ca­tional body with no stu­dents and no cam­pus any­where. Each of the 50 states, plus the Dis­trict of Columbia, awards a num­ber of elec­toral votes based on its rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress, with 270 re­quired for election.

That sim­ple fact should have been driven home to all Amer­i­cans as re­cently as 2000. Then, Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Al Gore beat Repub­li­can Ge­orge W. Bush by more than half a mil­lion pop­u­lar votes na­tion­ally but lost the election in a Supreme Court ad­ju­di­ca­tion of the vote count in Florida. The court gave all of the state’s dis­puted elec­toral votes to Mr. Bush, nar­rowly hand­ing him the ma­jor­ity.

The de­ci­sion trig­gered howls of protest from the Democrats, and As­so­ciate Jus­tice John Paul Stevens, the ap­pointee of Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford, wrote bit­ingly in dis­sent: “Time will one day heal the wound to that con­fi­dence that will be in­flicted by to­day’s de­ci­sion. One thing, how­ever, is cer­tain. Although we may never know with com­plete cer­tainty the iden­tity of the win­ner of this year’s pres­i­den­tial election, the iden­tity of the loser is per­fectly clear. It is the na­tion’s con­fi­dence in the judge as an im­par­tial guardian of the rule of law.”

De­spite some dis­cus­sion that fol­lowed over amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion to pro­vide election of the pop­u­lar vote win­ner, noth­ing came of it. So that vote con­tin­ues to be no more than a mat­ter of pub­lic in­ter­est, and a play­thing in the hands of the pub­lic opin­ion poll­sters with which to tan­ta­lize John Q. Cit­i­zen in the horse-race as­pect of our qua­dren­nial elec­tions.

It is and al­ways has been clear that the only pub­lic opin­ion polling that can pro­vide a re­al­is­tic ba­sis for “pre­dict­ing” the out­come of a pres­i­den­tial election is the nose-count­ing and opin­ion re­port­ing stateby-state of the pop­u­lar vote as each de­ter­mines its Elec­toral Col­lege vote. And that’s why you see the can­di­dates and their cam­paigns fo­cus­ing on the most hotly con­tested large and po­lit­i­cally di­vided states this year, such as Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Wis­con­sin and the like.

Look­ing through this par­tic­u­lar prism, the lat­est CNN/ORC is more tit­il­lat­ing than pre­dic­tive of how the 2016 race will turn out. Pro­fes­sional poll­ster Ge­orge Gallup Sr. spent years try­ing to ed­u­cate po­lit­i­cal writ­ers at his Prince­ton, N.J., head­quar­ters about the fact that, as he put it, a pub­lic opin­ion poll is only “a brief snap­shot in one mo­ment of time” to pro­vide a guide of po­lit­i­cal trends when it is taken.

So the con­sumer of these polls, es­pe­cially those na­tional sur­veys in­di­cat­ing one nom­i­nee or an­other run­ning ahead two months ahead of Election Day, needs to take them with a grain of salt. Amer­i­can vot­ers, how­ever, seem to have an in­sa­tiable ap­petite for want­ing to know how a pres­i­den­tial election will turn out be­fore the votes are counted.

Nev­er­the­less, one of the most tan­ta­liz­ing events in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics re­mains election night, when mil­lions are glued to their tele­vi­sion sets as the re­sults are posted state by state as election of­fi­cials tally them.

So it will be again on the night of Nov. 8, as suc­ces­sors of the late Wal­ter Cronkite, famed as “the most trusted man in Amer­ica,” de­liver the real goods that will tell those mil­lions whow­ill gov­ern them for the next four years. As old Wal­ter al­ways put it, with the con­fi­dence of the na­tion in his hands, “And that’s the way it is.”

Un­less, of course, an­other 2000 night­mare oc­curs, re­quir­ing re­counts of the pop­u­lar vote in some state to give Ms. Clin­ton or Mr. Trump the Elec­toral Col­lege ma­jor­ity. Hasn’t this cam­paign been painful enough al­ready?

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