Publisher’s Perspective: History has taught us nothing about presidential elections and pundits


By Michael Swanger


Regardless of who you voted for on Nov. 8, 2016, it is generally understood that the contest pitting Republican Donald Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton was one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern history and that rarely have so many pundits, including mainstream media and pollsters, been so wrong.


Evidence of both statements abound. News reports of heated arguments, attacks and protests at political rallies were common; debates between candidates were reduced to mudslinging; and tensions between relatives, friends and co-workers on opposing sides of the political aisle were real. So, too, was the mainstream media’s lack of preparation for a possible Trump victory as witnessed by their reporting and tone of shock and awe on election night and the days after it. Meanwhile, pollsters were scratching their heads, wondering how Trump won more electoral college votes than Clinton (306-232 was the final count, including Iowa’s six votes for Trump). The majority of them, for months leading up to the election, predicted that Clinton would win.


Throughout the election cycle, many people were yearning for the “good old days,” in which they assumed civility between candidates and voters was the norm; reporting was thorough and balanced; and polls were accurate. Frankly, it revealed that history has taught us nothing about presidential elections and pundits.


For instance, consider the presidential elections of 1860 and 1948. They help provide context on many levels.


In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln defeated Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the presidential election, avenging his loss two years earlier in a U.S. Senate race in Illinois that was best remembered for its series of seven debates. Those debates set the agenda and tone for the 1860 presidential election that was anything but moderate as both candidates delivered powerfully eloquent speeches, but sometimes resorted to insults.


In Iowa, most political rallies were peaceful. Children rode in parades, bands played, campaign clubs like the Democratic “Hickories” and Republican “Wide Awakes” were formed and the occasional cannon roared to the approval of hearty pioneers.


Sometimes, the campaigns got rough. According to author George Mills, who wrote in his book “A Judge and A Rope and Other Stories of Bygone Iowa,” a fight broke out between “Wide Awakes” and Democratic onlookers at a parade in Pella; three women were pelted by eggs at a Republican roundup in Bloomfield, then were caught and roughed up; Democrats warned that Republicans planned to bring in residents from Kansas to vote illegally; Republicans accused Democrats of stealing or destroying ballots; newspapers skewered candidates they didn’t endorse; and rallies drew upwards to 20,000 people.


Does some of this sound familiar?


For decades, the biggest upset in U.S. presidential election history was in 1948 when Democrat Harry Truman stunned the mainstream media and pollsters by soundly defeating the projected favorite, Republican Tom Dewey. Trump’s victory last November trumps that, on many levels, though similarities between the elections exist.


For starters, polling experts were nearly unanimous in predicting Dewey’s win. George Gallup, the renowned pollster and Jefferson native, said Dewey would win “with a substantial number of electoral votes,” wrote Mills. Another pollster, Elmo Roper, quit polling early because his results heavily favored Dewey.


In the mainstream media, 50 national political writers were polled and all of them picked Dewey to win. Des Moines Register writers Dick Wilson and William Mylander declared, “It’s a Republican year. Thomas E. Dewey will win in a walk,” and Register columnist Harlan Miller wrote, “Tom’s young for President. He will be two months short of 47 when he’s inaugurated,” reported Mills. And let’s not forget the classic blunder by the Chicago Tribune, which printed a few early editions that featured a front page headline that read “Dewey Defeats Truman.”


Of course, all of them were wrong. Truman won 303 electoral votes and Dewey only captured 189.


After the election, Gallup said that polling was “still an inexact science” and one national columnist wrote, “The fatal flaw was reliance on public opinion polls.”


In retrospect, Dewey played it safe, sitting on his perceived lead. Meanwhile, Truman rolled up his sleeves, rallied the farm vote nationwide and in Iowa he also captured the seven counties with the largest Iowa cities with promises of economic stimulus.


Again, does some of this sound familiar?


Thanks for reading.


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