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Will this Election Day be repeat of 1980?

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Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan shake hands at the conclusion of a presidential debate, Oct. 28, 1980.



NEW YORK – A Gallup poll released Oct. 26, 1980, showed Ronald Reagan was slipping farther behind President Jimmy Carter, with Carter at 47 percent and Reagan at 39 percent.


Reagan did not take the lead in the Gallup polls until the very last poll taken at the end of October, when just days ahead of Election Day, Nov. 4, 1980, Gallup had Reagan ahead 47-43 percent.


Reagan won by a landslide, capturing 50.7 percent of the popular vote to 41 percent for Carter, winning 44 states, with the exception of Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island and West Virginia, for an electoral vote total of 489 versus 49 for Carter.


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How could the polls in 1980 have been so wrong?


“At the heart of the controversy is the fact that no published survey detected the Reagan landslide before it actually happened,” noted Time Magazine senior correspondent Massimo Calabresi in an article published Oct. 31, 2012.


“With such responsibilities thrust on them, the pollsters have a lot to answer for, and they know it,” Calabresi wrote.


“Their problems with the Carter-Reagan race have touched off the most skeptical examination of public opinion polling since 1948, when the surveyers made Thomas Dewey a sure winner over Harry Truman,” he continued. “In response, the experts have been explaining, qualifying, clarifying – and rationalizing. Simultaneously, they are privately embroiled in as much backbiting, mudslinging and mutual criticism as the tight-knit little profession has ever known. The public and private pollsters are criticizing their competition’s judgment, methodology, reliability and even honesty.”


The Associated Press, writing on Nov. 8, 1980, reported “Pollsters Fail to Predict Reagan Landslide.”


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“The Ronald Reagan steamroller not only flattened many Democratic politicians, but also dented the reputations of the nation’s polls and pollsters for failing to gauge the magnitude of the Republican victory,” noted AP reporter Evan Witt.


“Most published polls just before last Tuesday’s election said the race between Reagan and Jimmy Carter was “too close to call,” but Reagan trounced the incumbent by 10 percentage points in the actual vote,” the AP article continued. “While explanations of the difference vary, what is certain is no poll correctly called Reagan’s margin. Some were closer than others, but none was on the mark.”


Low turnout defeated Carter


On the day after the 1980 presidential election, the Associated Press quoted David Neft, executive vice president of then-renowned pollster Louis Harris and Associates, attributing Carter’s loss to low voter turnout. Neft noted that higher voter turnout would have benefited Carter, given, then as now, the edge Democrats have traditionally held in the number of registered voters.


The review of Reagan’s performance in the last debate with Carter, held Oct. 28, 1980, gave no indication Reagan’s performance was responsible for a last-minute surge.


“There may have been no clear winner in Tuesday night’s presidential debate, but the focus of the discussion was pretty much where President Carter wanted it, on the issue of war and peace and not on the economy,” wrote AP writer R. Gregory Nokes Oct. 29, 1980.


“Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, who had said he wanted to focus in the closing days of the campaign on Carter’s ‘economic record of misery and despair,’ let pass several opportunities to say how he could do better than Carter,” Nokes continued.


“Reagan spent much of the 90-minute debate seeking to portray himself as a man of peace to offset the warmonger image that Carter has tried to tag him with. He wanted to come across as presidential, and he may well have succeeded,” the AP article concluded. “But his attack on Carter’s economic record seemed cursory and superficial.”


In the final analysis, Democrats were hard-pressed defending Carter’s record in 1980.


Carter’s four years in office were plagued by many set-backs, including the Iran hostage crisis which languished into its 444th day as the election approached, long gas lines caused by the OPEC oil embargo and an economy hampered by high, double-digit interest rates.


What Reagan’s landslide showed was that Carter’s failures weighed heavily on voters President Richard Nixon had termed the “silent majority” – a group typically prone to be underrepresented in polls taken by mainstream pollsters.


In 1980, the “silent majority” – those Barack Obama characterized as “clinging to their guns and Bibles,” and Hillary Clinton dubbed an irredeemable “basket of deplorables” characterized by xenophobia – proved decisive. While they weren’t detected in opinion polls, they turned out to vote for Ronald Reagan, the candidate the establishment media had reviled throughout the 1980 election campaign.


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