“I dropped 15 percentage points, and I almost lost the election,” Carter, about to turn 86, recalled in a chat during his book tour in Manhattan this week, adding with some wry hyperbole: “It was the most copies of Playboy ever sold.”
He is referring, of course, to his famous “lusted in my heart” interview with Playboy. Did it really cost him 15 points?
With an assist from Jim Stimson, I collected the trial heat polls from 1976 and plotted the raw poll numbers for Carter and Ford along with a smoothed trendline. The vertical lines denote the conventions, debates, the approximate date of the “lust in my heart” story. This is the date of the first story that I could find in Lexis-Nexis that contained the words “Carter” and “lust” or “Playboy” (a September 21st story in the New York Times). According to a CBS/New York Times poll conducted from Sept. 24-25, only 21% said that they not heard of this story.
The polling data in the graph are scant by contemporary standards. But they do reveal a large boost for Carter coming out of the convention. What they doe not reveal, however, is any effect of his lust.
The coincidence of lust and the first presidential debate makes it difficult to pinpoint the effects of either event. An apples-to-apples comparison of Time-Yankelovich polls from August 20-24 and September 25-29 show a 6-point decline in Carter’s numbers. The same comparison of Harris polls from August 18-30 and September 24 shows a similar 6-point decline. The smoothed trendline for Carter doesn’t really move.
So, the evidence is equivocal and certainly suggests nothing approaching a 15-point decline or any considerable electoral risk for Carter, who was ahead by at least 5 points for virtually the entire fall.