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The first presidential election with a computer predicting the winner

It was November 1952; the computer calculation conflicted with opinion polls. Guess which was right?

In 1952, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democratic Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson faced off for the presidency in an election with no incumbent candidate.

Eisenhower was still abroad when primary season began. He returned to the United States in June 1952; retired after 37 years in the Army; and began his campaign for president. After clinching the nomination in July, Eisenhower picked Sen. Richard M. Nixon (CA) for his running mate.

The Democrats were in “disarray.” Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson became the nominee after the third ballot. His running mate: Sen. John Sparkman (AL).

As November 4th approached, CBS began preparing for two firsts: coast-to-coast election night coverage and a UNIVAC computer to make predictions.

It was Walter Cronkite’s first election night broadcast for CBS. The computer “correctly predicted Dwight D. Eisenhower’s unexpected landslide victory.”

The UNIVAC prediction came with only about 6% of total ballots having been cast, which would have been from eastern time zone states. At the time, lever voting machines were used in major cities; they were “vulnerable to tampering.” In addition, they contained “an immense number of moving parts that are subject to wear and very difficult to completely test.”

NBC also used a computer for the first time night, the Monrobot. It, too, predicted the landslide.

1952 election
Results of the 1952 presidential contest. Dwight D. Eisenhower, 442 electoral college votes. Adlai Stevenson, 89. The American Presidency Project. UCSB.

From Battle of the Brains: Election-Night Forecasting at the Dawn of the Computer Age, the dissertation that Ira Chinoy, associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, wrote in 2010:

In 1952, key players – television news broadcasters, computer manufacturers, and critics – showed varied reactions to employing computers for election coverage. But this computer use in 1952 did not represent wholesale change. While live use of the new technology was a risk taken by broadcasters and computer makers in a quest for attention, the underlying methodology of forecasting from early returns did not represent a sharp break with pre-computer approaches. And while computers were touted in advance as key features of election-night broadcasts, the “electronic brains” did not replace “human brains” as primary sources of analysis on election night in 1952.

Four years prior, the Chicago Daily Tribune missed on its prediction: Dewey defeats Truman.

Dewey defeats Truman, Chicago Daily Tribune
President Truman holds an early edition of the 04 November 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune with its erroneous presidential election headline. Wikipedia.

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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