Forget opinion poll mania; real action is election night
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?