Poll Perversity

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the source: “Of Polls, Mountains: U.S. Journalists and Their Use of Election Surveys” by Thomas E. Patterson, in Public Opinion Quarterly, 2005: No. 5.

When the news media report the results of public-opinion polls during presidential campaigns, they rush to explain the latest ups and downs in terms of the flaws and strengths of the candidates. That may seem natural, says Thomas E. Patterson, a professor of government and the press at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, but in reality it’s peculiar. Why not look for explanations in the voting public itself?

The focus on candidates and their campaigns “derives from the age-old definition of news as events,” Patter­son says. “Candidates’ activities are events. Voters’ attitudes are not. Al­though voters’ partisan loyalties and policy preferences are the major influence on the vote, these influences are complex and not easily analyzed or reported. Moreover, because these influences are relatively stable, they are poorly suited to journalists’ need to say something new each day.”

When a candidate is doing well or poorly in the polls, reporters have relatively free rein to explain why, and “the temptation to say unfavorable things about a faltering candidate,” and favorable things about a surging one, is hard to resist. “When George H. W. Bush languished in the polls during the 1988 campaign, reporters said it was because he looked weak. Newsweek ran a Bush cover story entitled ‘Fighting the Wimp Factor.’ However, when Bush took the lead in polls after the GOP national convention, Newsweek declared that Bush had ‘ban­ished . . . the wimp factor.” No doubt Bush’s convention per­formance helped, but anybody who studied the polls more closely would have seen that the surge in his support came mainly from Republican-leaning voters who simply hadn’t been paying much attention to the campaign before.

By using the polls to focus so intensely on politicians as poll-minded strategists, and then pinning “flimsy, poll-derived images” on them, the press not only misses the bigger story of the underlying forces at work in elections, says Patterson. It also adds needlessly and destructively to Americans’ disenchantment with the presidential candidates who would lead them.

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