Most of the national published polls this year reported Ronald Reagan ahead in their final survey results, but without exception they failed to catch the Reagan upsurge in the final days of the campaign following the debate. This has led to two questions: Is there a stronger conservative tide in the nation than the polls or the political analysts have detected? And, if so, why did the polls fail to discover the full extent of this tide?
During the last half-century, the nation has been more conservative than political observers have generally thought. Even at the peak of the New Deal era, in a survey reported in June 1936, slightly more persons said they would prefer to align themselves with a conservative party than with a liberal party in a question positing two such parties instead of the traditional Republican/Democratic Party division.
When this same question was repeated in September 1961, when another Democrat, John Kennedy, was in office, the same result emerged. And as of the present time, under yet another Democratic president, slightly more persons place themselves to the right on the political spectrum than on the left.
It has been pointed out many times that the public tends to be conservative with respect to fiscal policies, liberal with respect to social policies.
Every poll we have conducted on the proposal to adopt a constitutional amendment to require Congress to balance the federal budget has found the public overwhelmingly in favor of such aplan. And, interestingly, there has been little change on other legislative proposals, advocated by the extreme right since 1976. The weight of this evidence would seem to negate the assumption of a strong conservative tide in recent months or years.
While the people support conservative fiscal policies, they approve, at the same time, virtually all of the social programs that have been initiated in recent decades. The views of the public, when carefully analyzed, reveal that opposition focuses not so much on the programs themselves as on the perceived waste resulting from how they are administered. In fact, waste in federal government spending, as a campaign argument, can now be placed in the same category as the man-eating shark. When we asked survey respondents to tell us how much of every dollar that goes to Washington is wasted, the median figure cited was 52 cents.
If the evidence indicates that there is no strong movement to the political right, then how can Reagan's victory over Carter be explained?
The most obvious place to look for the answer is to Carter himself. The president has had to deal with three extremely difficult problems -- problems that could easily unseat any president seeking reelection: inflation, unemployment and the hostage crisis.
Voters are daily reminded of the present administration's failure to act effectively in each of these areas as they shop for food and see prices continually rising, as they view evening news programs and are told that this is the 375th day of the hostage imprisonment and as they read their newspaper and are informed of factories' closing their doors.
Neither Carter nor Reagan has aroused much enthusiasm among his followers. Both rated lower on personal appeal than any other presidential candidate whose appeal we have measured during the last three decades.
When the campaign got under way after Labor Day, Carter's popularity was under the 40 percent level. With this low rating, the odds, based on survey evidence, quite simply were heavily against his winning the presidency again.
Other presidents have bowed out of the race when confidence in their leadership reached a low point. President Truman decided not to run after his popularity plummeted, chiefly because of the public's frustration over the never-ending Korean War. President Johnson withdrew from the race for essentially the same reason -- the war in Vietnam was dragging on and going badly.
In the 1980 campaign, voters had difficulty in choosing among the candidates, and this accounts for the wide fluctuations in voter preference found during the campaign. At one point in our trial elections, Reagan led Carter by 18 percentage points. At another point, Carter led Reagan by 29 percentage points. All in all, the lead changed hands three times over the course of the year.
Turning to the second question: why did the polls fail to discover the full extent of the Reagan tide?
First of all, I can speak only for the Gallup Poll. The failure to determine the full dimensions of Reagan's vote in the Tuesday election was not due to a flaw in the polling mechanism, but was a matter of timing. Following its usual practice, the Gallup Poll completed interviewing in the final survey on Saturday, in order to allow time to base the final results on personal interviewing using a secret ballot technique, which has the effect of simulating the actual election and reducing the undecided vote.
But this year, unlike all other election campaigns covered by the Gallup Poll, two major developments occurred in the final 10 days of the race: the presidential debate and a new crisis in the hostage situation.
Throughout the month of October, President Carter was steadily making gains on Reagan and, before the debate in Cleveland, just one week prior to the election, Carter led Reagan by the margin of 45 percent to 42 percent. After the debate, which our surveys and others showed Reagan had won with the viewing public, the Carter advantage disappeared and Reagan took the lead.
Between the debate and the election, the public's hopes of an early hostage release were raised and then dashed, Reagan moved upward from 42 percent to 44 percent and, in our final survey, to 47 percent -- four points under Reagan's actual vote in the election and a deviation greater than the average deviation of 2.3 percentage points for the 23 national elections covered by the Gallup Poll.
The final blow to Carter's hope for victory in this year's race was dealt by the Democratic Party itself, by its failure to get out the vote -- and especially those voters who typically vote the Democratic ticket. When voting participation declines, the Republicans almost always profit.
Poll critics may well ask: why go to the trouble and expense of polling the nation a few hours before Election Day when the results will be known 24 hours later?
The answer is that this is the best way to find out how to improve survey procedures. And the survey instrument has become so important a tool for exploring social, economic and political problems of all nations that efforts to improve the quality of survey data serve a worthy purpose and should be encouraged.