Sabato's Crystal Ball

Presidential Polling in June: Flip a Coin Instead?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics May 31st, 2012

“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” — Socrates

With all of the polls, models and history at their disposal, political analysts should be able to figure out who is going to win a November presidential election by June, right?

Well, not quite. While we would modestly suggest to Socrates and our readers that we know more than nothing about the election, declaring the winner with certainty at this point is a fool’s errand, particularly when the current data argue only that the contest will be a close one. In the RealClearPolitics average of national horse race polls as of Wednesday, President Obama was narrowly ahead of Mitt Romney by 2.0 percentage points. Meanwhile, in last week’s Crystal Ball, Alan Abramowitz showed how his respected presidential election model forecasts a very tight race at this point, with Obama as a slight favorite.

But surely, this year is an outlier, many would assert. Because of the unique circumstances surrounding this election, including the great economic dislocation caused by the 2008 crash and the restless mood of Americans even after three straight wave elections, it’s understandable that this contest would remain hazy late into the spring.

That’s true. But uncertainty in June is not unique, at least not in modern history.

If anyone doubts that a reassessment — maybe several of them — will come as 2012 wears on, consider this: Over the past eight elections, Gallup — the most recognizable of polling organizations — has only identified the eventual popular vote winner twice in its early June horse race polling:

And the uncertainty goes back further. Jimmy Carter looked as though he would roll Gerald Ford in 1976; instead, the election ended up incredibly tight. So did the 1960 and 1968 contests. As we never tire of repeating, Harry Truman shocked the world in 1948 by defeating “President-elect” Thomas E. Dewey.

This is not meant to cast aspersions on Gallup; rather, it’s to say that presidential races are not static, and that polling conducted five months before the election is only a snapshot in time, as opposed to a reliable prediction as to how the race will eventually shake out. As of Wednesday, Obama and Romney were tied, 46%-46%, in the Gallup poll. Obviously, this is a matchup that could go either way.

Almost everything can change, and frequently does, during the course of the summer and fall in a presidential race. The economy can get decidedly better or worse. International crises can pop up — or peace can break out. Unexpected scandals can engulf one or both major party candidates. One or more independents or third-party candidates may prove influential in the presidential tally.

Politics, as we’ve insisted for years, is a good thing. And a fun thing, too, for people who do not treat American elections as a life or death affair. There will be many spectacles between now and Nov. 6, and plenty of unexpected developments in this semi-scripted human drama. But while we know the road to the finish line will be fascinating, let’s also grant that it will be somewhat unpredictable.

For those of you who can’t wait, just join the partisans on both sides who absolutely, positively know their side will win — in a landslide! One side will be right, more or less, and after the election, the winners will lord their perceptiveness over friends, family and the opposition.

And if your partisanship isn’t intense enough for this route, there’s always that coin in your pocket. With the prospect of a tight presidential race, a good flip may tell you as much as June polls.