Notre Dame Expert: Presidential polling not always accurate predictor

Author: Arts and Letters


Current polls tell us that Sen. Hillary Clinton clearly is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and Rudy Giuliani has taken the lead among Republican candidates. But with a year to go before elections, can we be sure that these will be the two names on the ballot for president?

Not necessarily, according to University of Notre Dame political scientist Darren Davis, a nationally recognized expert in public opinion, elections and voting behavior and author of “Negative Liberty: Public Opinion and the Terrorist Attacks on America.”

“Public opinion polls are an indispensable resource in elections and governance, and if done correctly, provide a reliable snapshot of how the public perceives candidates and issues,” says Davis.

“However, without a complete understanding of how voters reach their decisions, the factors that impinge upon those decisions, and equally important, the underlying methodology of opinion surveys, polling results can be – and often are – misleading. It is true that one can get public opinion polls to say what people want them to say.”

Consider the record of some previous Democratic year-ahead polls:

  • In November 1971, surveys predicted that Democrats would nominate Edward Kennedy or Edwin Muskie. In 1972, the nominee was George McGovern.
  • In November 1975, Kennedy again was predicted the Democratic nominee; but in 1976, Jimmy Carter was nominated.
  • In early November 1979, polls predicted that Kennedy would defeat Carter for the Democratic nomination – he didn’t.
  • In 1987, Jesse Jackson was the frontrunner, yet in 1988, Michael Dukakis was the nominee.
  • In 1991, Mario Cuomo was the predicted nominee, yet Bill Clinton was the actual nominee.

For reasons not entirely clear, however, year-ahead polls on the Republican side usually are correct: They accurately predicted Ronald Reagan’s nomination in 1980, George H.W. Bush’s nomination in 1988, Bob Dole’s nomination in 1996, and George W. Bush’s in 2000. contributed to this story.

Media Advisory: Professor Davis’ comments may be used in whole or in part. He can be reached for further comment at 574-631-5654 or .

Originally published by Susan Guibert at on November 12, 2007.