Daily Revolt

December 25, 2007

Poll-Obsessed Media Stresses Strategy over Substance

Elections aren't about polls:
As we approach the Iowa caucuses, polls are providing pundits and political junkies with fresh data to spin out a new round of the usual "who's up, who's down" campaign coverage. But while the press seems settled on a new narrative for the campaign, journalists should recall what the polls told them last time around about who would likely win the Iowa caucuses.

[...]The difference from the previous survey was within the poll's margin of error, so the actual data said very little. Much of the media seemed to think otherwise. "The ground may be shifting," announced NBC anchor Brian Williams. The Los Angeles Times called it "a shift in momentum in this crucial state" -- in an article that boiled the race down to just two candidates, Clinton and Obama.

[...]On ABC, reporter Kate Snow mentioned something most of her colleagues seemed unconcerned with: the fact that these polls actually tell you very little about the outcome of the race. Snow recalled that "four years ago, John Kerry -- who eventually was the Democratic nominee -- he was polling in Iowa at 4 percent."

[...]"Two See Iowa as Crucial Battleground," announced The Washington Post on Nov. 29, 2003, billing the race as a "fight rich in substance and symbolism." A Nov. 9 Post report said that Dean was "for the first time, threatening to pull away from the pack," and even discussed his "opening for a quick-kill strategy" by winning Iowa and New Hampshire.

The polling was presumably a key factor leading reporters to reach such conclusions. A December 2003 Pew poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers showed Dean leading the pack with 29 percent, followed by Gephardt at 21 percent.

Kerry was in third with 18 percent, followed by John Edwards at 5 percent. A Zogby poll from around the same time had a closer race between Dean and Gephardt (26 to 22 percent), with Kerry and Edwards picking up 9 and 5 percent, respectively.

Surprise, surprise

And what happened when Iowa Democrats actually caucused? Kerry won with 37 percent, followed by Edwards at 32 percent. "Front-runners" Dean and Gephardt finished with 18 and 11 percent, respectively.

The point is not just to note that polls at this stage are hardly predictive -- though the media acknowledging as much would be a start. Nor is it to wish that the national press would simply work at finding a better method of declaring which candidates are "front-runners," and whose campaigns aren't worth your attention.

The more fundamental problem for the press -- and for American democracy -- is that the media's overreliance on polls encourages a kind of political conversation that prioritizes strategic consideration and tactics over substance.

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