By Denise Tessier
National columnist David Broder once told a group of editorial writers (myself included) that polling has reached the point it irritates people.
Broder, who has covered every national campaign and convention since 1960 – traveling up to 100,000 miles a year to interview voters and report on candidates – made that comment nearly 10 years ago.
I think of Broder’s statement every time I see yet another story about the latest poll numbers from this or that political camp.
Some say polls lull us to sleep, or discourage people from voting, the rationale being that one’s vote won’t make a difference and the election’s already been decided.
Broder, whose pieces are carried by the Albuquerque Journal, had a more dire take on polling in that talk 10 years ago – one I think has proven prescient. He said:
We should be coming together in this country. Polling pulls us apart.
Polling has reached the point it irritates people but doesn’t sort through the complexity of issues, or come to conclusions as editors do.
Broder was making the point to editorial writers that polling had become a campaign coverage crutch for journalists. Focusing on numbers provides a diversion that gives differences of opinion more attention than research into how policy decisions affect people. Devoting valuable word-space to ever-changing poll numbers also reduces the amount of space left for more incisive stories. And polls and surveys are easier to produce in terms of time spent “reporting.”
Broder went so far as to suggest that polling has “reduced the clout of editorial pages.”
It’s also easy to skew the importance of polls. That is, placement of poll reportage can diminish or enhance its value in the eye of the reader. The Journal routinely gives polls prominence – and perceived value – by putting them on the front page.
Just this week, on Oct. 13, the Journal ran results of yet another national poll, this one announcing in a caption below President Barack Obama’s picture that fewer than half of likely voters approve of Obama’s job performance. Just reading the headline – “Poll: Hope Fades for Many Obama Backers” – offers yet another Journal swipe at the administration and a doomsday-like prediction for Democrats going into the election. The Journal ran this story, headline and caption on the front page.
But because fewer than three paragraphs of this Bloomberg News story actually appeared on the front page, only those readers who continued the story on A6 learned that Obama’s personal approval rate is actually up:
Obama’s deteriorating job-approval numbers are balanced by continuing regard for him personally: 53 percent of voters have a positive view of the president in the October poll, up from 49 percent in a July survey.
The headline also failed to take into account quite a few other results from the Bloomberg poll, such as this:
Two-thirds of likely voters say Bush hurt the economy and 57 percent say congressional Republicans have. Forty-seven percent say Obama’s policies have damaged the economy and 53 percent say congressional Democrats have done so.
So, two-thirds – about 66 percent – say former President George W. Bush damaged the economy; almost 20 percent fewer say Obama has done so. And Republicans got 10 percent more of the blame than Obama and 4 percent more blame than Democrats. Yet the headline focuses negatively on the president.
This cherry-picking headline – chosen to highlight one negative aspect of the poll, rather than the variety of attitudes reflected in it – reminds me of another unfair headline the Journal ran on Oct. 13: “Rail Runner Express Ridership Down 11%.”
Knowing that there is talk some New Mexican voters are planning to “punish Diane Denish for what Bill (Richardson) has done,” as Cecilia Lopez of Chamisal was quoted as saying in a Journal column Oct. 16, and knowing that part of voter criticism of Gov. Richardson includes the start-up of the Rail Runner, the Journal ran a headline that for all intents and purposes indicates the commuter train project is failing/and or a failure.
Read the story, however, and one learns that ridership for commuters – the train’s intended purpose – has held steady.
Augusta Meyers, Mid-Region Council of Governments spokeswoman, attributed the ridership decrease to a wearing off of the newness and novelty of the train. She said:
Keep in mind, we built the service for the Monday-through-Friday core commuter. We’re not seeing the drop there. We’re seeing it more on the weekends.
The story continued:
Potentially another contributing factor: In February the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which manages the train for the state, instituted a weekend fare increase and cut some Saturday service to deal with an anticipated budget shortfall.
Meyers also suggested the system is following a nationwide trend of a drop in mass transit use for the past few years because of economic conditions.
The headline and story could just as accurately have been approached with the angle and headline: “Rail Runner Commuters Still on Board.” (I counted the letters; this headline would have fit.)
But back to polling.
The Albuquerque Journal generally runs its local polls on the front page, regardless of political race, immediately giving the polls great weight in the eyes of readers, especially since they are not on only the front page, but above the fold line – the most valuable real estate in the paper. This isn’t surprising, since the Journal pays for local polls, conducted by Brian Sanderoff’s Research and Polling.
Other media outlets, including the online New Mexico Independent and Heath Haussamen’s NMPolitics.net, both of which devote extensive coverage to the current campaigns, pick up and repeat these poll results.
But how accurate are they?
The Independent on Oct. 14 carried a piece about a Pew Research Center study that says some polls are skewed in favor of Republicans simply because they are conducted with voters who use land-based phones instead of cell carriers. That would make sense, since many younger voters who might vote Democrat or Independent have never even leased a land line.
A summary of the Pew study says:
Although some survey organizations now include cell phones in their samples, many – including virtually all of the automated polls – do not include interviews with people on their cell phones.
In fact, the study says:
The latest estimates of telephone coverage by the National Center for Health Statistics found that a quarter of U.S. households have only a cell phone and cannot be reached by a landline telephone.
So, is publication of these results influencing election results?
“We report on polls instead of people,” Broder said nearly a decade ago, and when we do that, “people can’t see themselves, so they retreat.”
So, polls are not just another irritant in nasty campaigns, their undue prominence is further eroding democracy. Divisive popularity polls are pulling us apart – and could be dissuading citizens from casting their vote at the only poll that matters: Election Day.