A few days before the presidential election in the United States in November 1992, Bill Clinton enjoyed a good lead over President George H W Bush in every opinion poll. He was clearly on his way to the White House. And yet he was politically astute enough to tell the media, "It's not over until it's over." When the campaign and the voting were finally over, Clinton was President-elect and Al Gore was Vice President-elect. George H W Bush had become a single term President.
The current campaign for the American presidency will end on November 2. The voters, apart from those who have already cast their ballots by mail, will trek to the polling stations the next day to elect the man they believe should be their next President. Opinion polls give former Vice President Joe Biden a good lead over President Donald Trump, a hint that the latter could end up losing the White House. Even so, Biden is not taking any chances. He has been barnstorming the country, especially the battleground states he needs to carry if he means to beat Trump.
It is, given the caution the Biden campaign has been exercising, safe to suggest that nothing can be certain until the votes are counted once the Election Day is over. Memories are yet fresh over the shock defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, at a time when all projections pointed to a sure triumph for her. As she was to say later, she even had a list of her cabinet appointees prepared on the assumption that she was on her way to replacing Barack Obama as President. For their part, the Trump campaign people were extremely surprised at their candidate's victory, given that they had already come round to the idea that Clinton would win hands down.
It all shows how unpredictable opinion polls can sometimes be. There is too the fact of the closeness in which some presidential races were fought in modern times, enough to have people keep fingers crossed. One cannot but go back to the story of the 1948 presidential election where a seemingly unpopular President Harry Truman was pitted against a formidable Thomas E Dewey, the Republican Governor of New York. Every opinion poll predicted an ignominious exit from office for Truman, who had taken over the presidency following Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death in April 1945. On election night, as the votes were being counted, Dewey went to sleep, confident he would be President-elect the following morning. He woke up to find that Truman had surprisingly defeated him.
Truman was lucky, something that President Gerald Ford was not. Having taken over from an embattled Richard Nixon in August 1974, he faced a little known Jimmy Carter, former Governor of Georgia, at the presidential election in November 1976. The polls were a consistent pointer to a Carter triumph. During the campaign, particularly in one of the pre-election debates with Carter, Ford committed a gaffe --- there was no Soviet influence over Poland, he said --- and saw his ratings slip swiftly. Ford remains known in American history as the President who was appointed to the office and then lost his chance to be elected to it in his own right.
As the present election campaign draws to an end, it would therefore be wise to stay away from making any predictions. Trump has his base, which certainly will go to the polling booths in droves on the Election Day. Besides, in a good number of states, he and Biden are neck-and-neck in the polls. Again, if Trump can narrow the gap in the less than a week which remains before the election, the Democrats could be in trouble. That explains the caution of the Biden-Harris team.
And well it might, if the closing days of the 1968 presidential election are anything to go by. Richard Nixon, having lost to John F Kennedy in 1960, was ahead of Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the polls for much of the campaign. Sometime before the election, President Lyndon Johnson suspended all bombing of North Vietnam, which was quite a boost for Humphrey, who began to narrow the gap with Nixon. Had the election been held a few days after the actual day when it took place, there could have been a good chance for Humphrey to defeat Nixon. The Republican survived by a whisker. In 1960, hardly anyone could predict who between Kennedy and Nixon would win the White House. Nixon lost by a whisker.
Joe Biden might emerge triumphant next week. And, yes, it will be a miracle if his margin of victory is wide enough to convince Americans that he will indeed, after the last four years of an abrasive Trump presidency, be a President who appeals to an entire country. Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by a landslide in 1964; Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern by a similar landslide in 1972; Ronald Reagan achieved a similar feat against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
One will just have to wait --- and recall Bill Clinton's caution. "It's not over until it's over."