Why the 2012 election is the closest in recent history

Scott Bomboy

As Election Day approaches, a review of polling data going back to 1936 shows the race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is the closest in 76 years.

In many cases, polling isn’t an exact science, and few polls take into account electoral votes, which ultimately decide the winner of the presidential race.

But polls showing the projected popular vote are useful indicators of how the final election will turn out. In other words, polls about the popular vote don’t always pick the winner, but they usually do.

And there hasn’t been a closer election in the polling world since the mid-1930s, when scientific methods were first used to project a presidential winner based on modern sampling techniques.

As of Monday, President Obama has a very slim 0.4 percent lead in the popular vote based on consensus data from Real Clear Politics. Gallup suspended its national tracking polling last week after Hurricane Sandy, but its recent swing state poll shows Obama and Romney tied at 48 percent.

Of the six major national polls taken in November, three show Obama with a slight edge, two show a tied election and one favors Romney. Only one poll, from Pew Research, shows Obama ahead by more than the margin of error in a poll.

In historical terms, looking at past polls from Gallup and two recent consensus polls from Real Clear Politics, it’s the closest election since 2000, when George W. Bush and Al Gore approached Election Day.

The 2000 contest also appears to be the nearest thing to the Obama-Romney campaign if you look at a consensus polling model, instead of Gallup.

Gallup polling from 2000 showed a two-point margin lead for Bush among likely voters and a one-point margin for Gore among registered voters.

We went back to the data for 2000 and did our own Constitution Daily average for the nine major polls taken within a week of Election Day.

2000 Consensus Poll (Bush with positive numbers)
Gallup 2
Zogby -2
Harris 0
ICR -2
Fox 0
Pew 2
Ave. 0.56%

The consensus poll shows that Bush had a 0.56 percent lead on Gore when numbers from pollsters like Pew and the major TV networks were included. We used the Gallup data that showed Bush’s lead among likely voters, which is how Real Clear Politics accounts for Gallup’s current poll data.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy had a one-point lead over Richard Nixon heading into Election Day, and in 1976, Gerald Ford has a one-point lead over Jimmy Carter. In the 1944 race, Franklin D. Roosevelt led Thomas Dewey by one point heading into Election Day.

In those broad terms, the candidate with the popular-vote polling lead in the closest elections usually finds a path to the White House.

Recent Constitution Daily Stories

Romney’s wildest win scenario features Pennsylvania
10 most unusual celebrity presidential endorsements
Booze on Election Day was an American tradition
FCC ‘loophole’ may force mobile users to pay for political text ads

Looking at the eight closest elections since 1936, the election of 1976 is the only one where the popular polling leader didn’t win the election. Gallup had Gerald Ford with a one-point lead on Jimmy Carter, but Carter won the popular vote by 2.1 percent.

Of course, in the 2000 race Al Gore won by 0.5 percent of the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College after the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Florida’s electoral votes to stand.

The 1980 election was a bigger aberration for Gallup: it had Ronald Reagan with a three-point lead over Carter, but Reagan won the popular vote by 9.6 percent.

A big factor in the 2000 election was the role of third-party candidate Ralph Nader in Florida, where some Gore followers claimed those votes would have likely headed to Gore if Nader hadn’t sought his own candidacy.

In 2012, third-party candidate Virgil Goode has been discussed as a long-shot factor in Virginia.

However, looking at the polling numbers for swing states, it seems that Tuesday night could easily turn into Wednesday morning for Americans waiting to find out the winner of the election.

At least eight swing states have a polling margin of 3 percent or less, according to Real Clear Politics. And Pennsylvania is a late entry into the undecided category.

If President Obama doesn’t take the trifecta of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa, the election will be decided in Nevada or Colorado, or by a potential examination of provisional ballots in other states.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

Closest Election Day Polls Difference Forecast Winner Actual Winner
2012 Obama-Romney 0.4%
2000 Bush-Gore 0.6% Bush Bush*
1960 Kennedy-Nixon 1% Kennedy Kennedy
1976 Ford-Carter 1% Ford Carter
1944 FDR-Dewey 1% FDR FDR
1968 Nixon-Humphrey 2% Nixon Nixon
2004 Bush-Kerry 2% Bush Bush
1940 FDR-Wilkie 2% FDR FDR
*Gore won popular vote, Bush won Electoral vote