Now that the campaign's virtually over, we know: All about the candidates, and their strategy, and their money . . . All about the front-runners, and the dark-horses, and the almost-rans . . . All about the journalists, and their predictions, and their plans . . . All about the voters, and their mood, and their behavior . . . All about the issues, and the ideological application left and right, Midwest and Northeast, with a smattering of the tropics added.
Only one piece of the puzzle remains. We need to take a poll about the pollsters.
The only certainty I bring back from the campaign trail so far involves the polls. People resent them. They are tired of being told how they think, according to the polls; how they will vote, according to the polls; and why they didn't think the way they were supposed to think or vote the way they were supposed to vote, according to the polls.
Already in this brief but all-too long campaign the voters have struck back twice with stunning measure. In Main, CBS had flatly called Carter a victor along the lines of his Iowa landslide over Kennedy. But when the final votes were counted the margin between the rivals was somewhere in the nature of 3 percent instead of the predicted 20 or so percentage points.
New Hampshire was even more confounding. George Bush was way ahead, according to the polls. Then, as primary day approached, the race was closer. Ronald Reagan was moviang up. Across the state those last few days, the survey data shown on television signalled a real horse race. It was Bush over Reagan by a percentage point, or too close to call, or even-steven.
If any poll predicted Reagan would get 50 percent of all the votes cast in a seven-man field and beat Bush by 27 points, I haven't seen it. And now we're getting polls about why the pollsters were wrong.
Before New Hampshire fades in the face of the next sudden shift in voter behavior, here's one unscientific, old-fashioned, shoe-leather-and-seat-of-the-pants reportorial view on why Bush was defeated so overwhelmingly when the citizens finally had their say. He lost for a simple reason: Bush beat himself. In the end, he proved to be a lousy candidate.
It wasn't what Bush said on any so-called debate that did him in. Nor did it have much to do with his position on permitting the other Republican candidates to share the stage with him on that now-celebrated night in Nashua. It was Bush's own personal responses to the controversy that destroyed him.
The self-portrait of George Bush drawn those last two days before the balloting was singularly unattractive.
Bush came over as a petulant politician, lacking grace and dignity, and complaining peevishly about being "sandbagged" and "ambushed" by all the other nasty politicians. He resembled nothing more than a spoiled child whose toy has been taken away.I don't have to take a poll to predict he'll win nothing more if he continues that way. What Bush did was permit the Reagan faithful, who clearly were drifting away, to vote their emotions.
That may account for New Hampshire, but it doesn't deal adequately with the polls.
The problem lies not with the pollsters but with the way their material is used. Polling, as a fixture of American political life, goes back to the early New Deal days. With a few notable exceptions -- the Literary Digest call of Alf Landon over FDR in 1936, and Tom Dewey over Harry Truman 12 years later -- the poll results have been remarkably accurate. The pollsters themselves, a cautious painstaking group, always correctly point out that any poll represents only a snapshort at a given moment in time.
Fair enough . . . but this year in particular the polls seem especially troubling. Never have there been so many. Never have they been so widely cited as ultimate wisdom.
Not only have the polls in overwhelming numbers spelled out the political realities of our times -- the hopeless Carter of the spring, summer and fall, the invincible Kennedy dominating Iowa, New Hampshire and the nation in the same months -- but the sheer weight of these soundings have had an influence of their own.
It's impossible to believe that Kennedy would have undertaken his challenge without such findings, or, say, that Gerald Ford would have refrained from running had Reagan seemed so vulnerable in the polls earlier.
Beyond these, it is hard to believe the weight of the polls as reported extensively in the press doesn't tend to influence public opinion. We are not, despite all the old myths, a nation of rugged individualists; Americans like to be in the majority, to stay in the mainstream of thought.We're more conformists than iconoclasts.
When people say that they resent the polls, they invariably go on to criticize the press for relying on them so heavily. They seem to want to show both up: Those widely reported large numbers of "undecided" voters that turned up in the last Iowa and New Hampshire surveys, weren't undecided at all. The voters just didn't want to say how they intended to vote.
Long ago Walter Lippman gave, as usual, the best advice about the polls. His words deserve to be repeated at least every four years when we begin to choose our presidnets:
"The notion that public opinion can and will decide all issues is in appearance very democratic. In practice it undermines and destroys democratic government. For when everybody is supposed to have a judgment about everything, nobody in fact is going to know much about anything . . . . Effective government cannot be conducted by legislators and officials who, when a question is presented, ask themselves first and last not what is the truth and which is the right and necessary course, but 'What does the Gallup poll say? . . . . "