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Nov. 1 , 2004
CONTACT: Carol Anderson

EMU's Bernstein weighs in on how to pick winner of tight presidential race

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeffrey Bernstein, associate professor of political science at Eastern Michigan University, is an expert on public opinion, presidential elections and American politics. He is available at 734.487.6970.

YPSILANTIMany people may be experiencing an overload of information when it comes to this election year. Eastern Michigan University’s Jeffrey Bernstein, an associate professor of political science, cuts through the clutter by recommending which deciding factors to watch for on election night.

• “‘Ohio – win that state, and you win the election,’” said Bernstein, quoting former U.S. • President Richard Nixon. Bernstein also suggests watching the outcomes in Florida and Pennsylvania as indicators of a winning candidate.
  • A groundswell of undecideds, who voted for Clinton in 1992, is not likely this year,

he says. In that election, the polls were closer than the final outcome. Bill Clinton connected with the voters and won by 43 percent over Robert Doyle (38 percent) and Ross Perot (19 percent).

  • Undecideds usually go for the challenger, but Bush is holding his own this year, he says.
  • If a candidate has the most likeable personality and an approval rating above 48 percent, he’s in, says Bernstein.
  • The race is still close, he points out, since Bush’s approval rate is around 44 percent and a high voter turnout on election day tends to favor the Democrats.

“As of the 1980’s, the most likeable candidate has always won,” he says, pointing out that George H. W.  Bush was more likeable than Michael Dukakis; Bill Clinton had more charisma than Bush and George W. Bush had more appeal than Al Gore. 

So who’s winning in the polls? Voters can tune into any radio or television news report and hear varying results.

“Gallup, USA Today and CNN had (George W.) Bush in the lead, while The New York Times and Newsweek magazine reported the race was a dead heat,” says Bernstein. “National polls are not worth the paper they are written on.”

The results depend upon who’s in the sample, how the questions are worded and when the data was complied.

“One thousand people can represent a country if (they are) chosen at random,” says Bernstein.

A random sample is a smaller number of units of a larger population in which inferences can be made about the population. In an ideal world, the sample is random and represents every element that is included in the population as a whole, according to Bernstein.

In polls, note the margin of error or “fudge factor.” If it’s plus or minus 4 percent and the

results are within the margin of error, the race is a tie. Florida was a tie in the 2000 election, he says.

            Polls are a snapshot of the population at that moment. If something major happens after the poll is taken, the results no longer reflect the current mood. “Yesterday’s poll news is old news,” he says.

Bernstein also noted that the 18-24 year-old voters will tilt toward Kerry, but the turnout will not go “through the roof.”       

            Bernstein believes the electorate is polarized this year. Some people aren’t over the 2000 election while others are still fighting the Vietnam War. But the one thing he cautions about is not cutting back on the money spent to do polling. In 2000, the “fiasco in Florida” resulted from TV stations using the same polling data to make an early call that later had to be retracted by most media outlets, he says.

Bernstein’s advice: Get out and vote.





Eastern Michigan University is a public, comprehensive university that offers programs in the arts, sciences and professions. EMU prepares students with the intellectual skills and practical experiences to succeed in their career and lives, and to be better citizens.

Editor's Note: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU's Eastern Experts online at www.emich.edu/univcomm/easternexperts.

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