by Quin Hillyer
As you read this somewhere between 12 and 10 days before the election, pundits everywhere will be trying to be the first to pronounce some sort of inevitable result uniquely apparent to the pundit class. History teaches, though, that late surprises often catch virtually everybody off guard, completely upending the expected results.
In other words, no matter who you support, you shouldn’t relax even if your candidate’s chances are looking increasingly strong.
Let’s start with 1948. Polling back then was much less reliable, but the entire media world seemed utterly convinced that challenger Thomas Dewey had the election wrapped up over incumbent Harry Truman. Even as early election returns came in, the media thought Dewey’s victory was assured – leading to the famous headline
in the Chicago Tribune proclaiming Dewey the winner, only to be retracted the next day when it finally became apparent that Truman actually had won re-election.
In 1960, incumbent vice president Richard Nixon was favored over Sen. John Kennedy. But Nixon missed crucial time from the campaign trail due to illness, and still felt and looked poorly during the first-ever televised debate. Even so, even Kennedy-friendly biographers acknowledge that the margin of victory for Kennedy came from stolen votes in Illinois and Texas – and, in any event, it was only well into the morning after Election Day that the results became evident.
In 1976, challenger Jimmy Carter opened up a 32-point polling lead (!!) with just two months to go. Then, even after incumbent Gerald Ford obviously was mounting a major comeback, the Ford momentum seemed to be stopped cold when Ford made a debate gaffe wrongly proclaiming that Eastern Europe was free from Soviet domination. But in the last week or so of the campaign, Playboy magazine published a remarkable interview
with Carter in which Carter said he had “committed adultery in my heart many times” and used frank and undignified language. Carter barely held on to win; a switch of just 24,000 votes combined in Ohio and Wisconsin would have given Ford the victory.
Four years later, Carter led by three points in the Gallup poll until the lone debate with just eight days remaining – and most media analysts expected him to completely outclass challenger Ronald Reagan in the debate and to move on to victory. Instead, Reagan legendarily “connected” with debate viewers in a major way, and vaulted to a landslide victory, taking 44 of 50 states and a 10-point edge in the popular vote. The media was dumbfounded.
Of course, the closest presidential election in well over 100 years came in 2000, when it took five weeks for the vote-counting in Florida to stop and for George W. Bush to be proclaimed the victor by just 537 votes over Vice President Al Gore. (Two major comprehensive media analyses of the results, published a full year later, concluded that if Gore had been granted all his legal requests, Bush still would have won.) But what people now forget is just how surprising that super-close result was: Four days before the election, the consensus was that Bush probably looked poised for a narrow-but-clear victory. But on Friday evening before the Tuesday election, a story broke that Bush had been arrested years before for drunk driving. Bush’s famous consultant, Karl Rove, has said that the Evangelical/conservative-Christian voter turnout for Bush fell by nearly 4 million nationwide as a result of the news – in other words, they just stayed home or else left the presidential ballot blank – thus turning the expected victory into the infamous nail-biter of a recount.
Finally, while the 2004 election did not feature the lengthy, post-vote drama of the 2000 recount, it also featured a major surprise. Bush and challenger John Kerry were locked in a tight race that all observers, and both campaigns, thought could go either way, right up until Election Day. Midway through the afternoon, exit polls appeared to show a certain victory for Kerry, so much so that even some of Bush’s closest advisors reportedly told the president that little chance remained for him to win. As it turned out, of course, Bush won by a handy 3 million votes, and an electoral vote margin of 35 – reasonably close, but still a significant majority.
In sum, nearly half of the presidential elections since the end of World War II (six out of 16) have featured major late surprises of one form or another. And races for the House and Senate have featured too many final-week plot twists to even attempt to list them all. Therefore, nobody should take anything for granted. Nothing, nothing at all, is certain until the final vote is counted.
About the Contributor
Quin Hillyer is a Senior Fellow for The Center for Individual Freedom, a Senior Editor for the American Spectator magazine, and a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mobile. He has won mainstream awards for journalistic excellence at the local, state, regional and national levels. He has been published professionally in well over 50 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Human Events, and The New Republic Online. He is a former editorial writer and columnist for the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the Mobile Register, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a former Managing Editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. He has appeared dozens of times as a television analyst in Washington DC, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana, and as a guest many hundreds of times on national and local radio shows.