Looking back, it seems that election day “surprises” have become the norm rather than the exception.
For the first few decades after television began broadcasting play-by-play forecasts and results of elections, things were fairly predictable. The populace was much less mobile than it is today, and virtually all voters had land lines. In many precincts, the turnout and trends were so stable that pollsters could safely add data from the last election to the tally of the current one without being far off the mark. Votes were cast on a specific day at neighborhood polling places, so exit interviews with people who had just voted could result in fairly accurate estimates of which way a particular neighborhood was going swing. Add the survey results together, and voilà! The result was sometimes a foregone conclusion long before the polls closed.
This predictability was problematic for a number of reasons and very likely skewed the results of some elections. Voters on the West Coast—not to mention Hawaii—often knew the results of national races long before the polls closed in their own state. In such cases, many didn’t bother to vote, knowing it would be a pointless exercise. Getting a mail-in ballot could be harder than it is today to file income tax, so those who couldn’t get to their local polling place on the appointed day, for one reason or another, often just didn’t bother. Without the deluge of ads and information on radio, television, and the Internet that inundates today’s voters, the voters of yesteryear tended to make up their minds earlier and change them less often.
Back in the day, “Gallop” and “polling” were synonymous. Today there are hundreds of polling companies, local and national, many of them dedicated to gathering information specifically for one party or the other. So prevalent have they become that there are now people who poll the pollsters, as well as numerous columns and blogs (such as fivethirtyeight) that do nothing but compare and analyze polling data.
The upshot of all this is that, in contrast to other historically significant elections, no one really has clue as to what will happen on November 2. That fact is undoubtedly giving many candidates serious heartburn.
For us spectators, however, it just makes the races all the more fun.