Polls, pundits, and pointyheads

The hand-wringing is continuing today in the wake of Tuesday’s “surprise” in which Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary, an event which has, in the last 24 hours, grown in stature to eclipse Harry Truman’s defeat of Tom Dewey and is moving closer to Jesse Ventura shocking the world.

The New York Times analysis this morning says:

The polls, which consistently showed Mr. Obama running much more strongly than Mrs. Clinton, may have been unable to keep pace with events. In the end, it seems, the preferences of a considerable number of New Hampshire voters were very much in flux in the final days of the campaign. What pollsters call “considered opinion” — the kind of opinion born of reflection rather than one elicited in an instant by a poll taker — registers only when people step into the ballot box.

“Ah,” as Captain Queeg might say if he were interested in politics, “the polls. That’s when I knew I had them.”

The industry — mine — that so embarrassed itself in 2000 by being driven by polls as a substitute for journalism, had done it again; surprised by itself.

By now, perhaps, you’ve heard of the rallying cry for better political journalism from Tom Brokaw, when he schooled MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Tuesday night.

MATTHEWS: We’re going to have to go back and figure out the methodology, I think, on some of these.

BROKAW: You know what I think we’re going to have to go back and do? Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

MATTHEWS: What do we do then in the days before balloting–

BROKAW: What a novel idea–

MATTHEWS: –We must stay home then I guess.

BROKAW: No, no, we don’t stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they’re saying. We know from how the people voted today what moved them to vote. We can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that had not been fully explored in all this.

But we don’t have to get in the business of making judgments before the polls have closed and trying to stampede and affect the process.

Look, I’m not picking just on us. It’s part of the culture in which we live these days.

But I think the people out there are going to begin to make some judgments about us, if they haven’t already, if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding, in many cases as we learned in New Hampshire, as they went into the polling place today or in the past three days. They were making decisions very late.

The most illiuminating words in the exchange, however, weren’t Brokaw’s, they were Matthews’. Take away the polls, he suggested, and there’s nothing for journalists to do.


At one time, it was impossible to get out out of Iowa without being exposed to some sort of discussion on agriculture in the United States, or, now, ethanol. There was almost no coverage of the economics of agriculture or the minefield of ethanol economics from journalists in the year they had to follow the campaigns in Iowa.

Similarly, it was nigh on impossible for any candidate to spend a week in New Hampshire in the past without talking about the issue of taxes, in a state in which the issue has moved more than a few residents to tears (it’s that big of an issue.) There was no coverage of the issue in the week leading up to Tuesday night, but for a brief exchange in the Republican debate.

And, back in the day, on it would go from state to state, each with its own particular issue. The net effect was at the end of the campaign, politicians were not only better schooled on — wait for it — issues, but so were we. Those days are over. Pollsters talk to voters. Journalists don’t.

In the aftermath of a primary, we are left instead with an analysis of the efffect of a candidate’s tears (ignoring the fact that there weren’t any actual tears) instead of an analysis of the effect of the ideological differences between the winners and the losers.

Here’s one analyst’s take today:

We become so caught up in the horse race that we often don’t pick up on the nuances as well as the unpredictable makeup of voters. We realize that many voters both in New Hampshire and across the country are on some level trying to send a message to the media that they are simply too powerful — and that we in the media are too impatient with the voting process.

That comes from Steve Adubato, the media analyst at MSNBC, whose column raises a simple question: If the people making the mistake are acknowledging they’re making a mistake, why not just stop making it?

It would appear that the problem really isn’t the polling or its methodology; it’s that the people covering campaigns don’t appear to know what stories to do without them. Take away pundits, pointyheads, and polls, and what are you left with? Voters and whatever issues they really care about.

MPR’s servers have been inundated with people — 48,000 yesterday alone — using our Select A Candidate program. As one of the people who put it together, I can tell you it was a massive amount of work finding candidate answers to about a dozen obvious issues. Why? Given the millions of dollars invested by news organizations to cover the presidential campaign almost two years in advance, it shouldn’t be such a struggle to get a concise overview of where candidates stand on issues. And yet, it is.

That’s a heck of a story.

  • bsimon

    The problem isn’t just the polling, its the whole nature of how stories are selected. Do the post-debate stories focus on policy differences? No. They focus on who scored the best one-liner. There’s almost no truth-squadding of answers, instead everybody’s looking for that one moment they can put on an endless loop and define as ‘the moment that changed the outcome’. They’re looking for Dean’s scream, or Reagan’s joke about Mondale’s age, or Hillary’s non-tears, or Biden calling Obama well-groomed and eloquent.

  • Sylvia

    Brokaw is so Old School talking about “issues”. New School TV journalism focuses on images and glitzy graphics and effects, flashing around lots of numbers and statistics on the screen. It’s a meaningless hodgepodge and easy to produce.

    Radio at least has to rely on content, not packaging, although it’s been slipping into punditry more lately. When elections and sports reporting become interchangeable that’s not news, that’s entertainment.

  • Amy

    There was nothing more annoying than the news media reporting “poll” after “poll” with Obama winning before the primary and then it’s utter astonishment with Clinton’s victory afterward. I don’t know what statistical method they’re trying to use here, but even the best “poll” cannot predict elections like this and any journalism predicting anything (unless they’re Nostradamus, of course) is purely and simply for entertainment value at best. Their surprise was even more annoying since they had previously reported Clinton as the frontrunner. Boy, talk about your political antics and acting! I can act astonished at my own incompetence too, but I’d rather admit I have no idea who’s going to win the candidacies.

    (Collins adds: I didn’t pay attention to ANY political news in the week after Iowa. I’m from Massachusetts and grew up on the N.H. border, so I’m generally familiar with the issues and such and I was content to see how the vote went. So when the results were announced, I wasn’t surprised (after all, up until Iowa, Clinton was the presumptive nominee).

    Imagine my surprise, then, when people were surprised.

  • http://n466pg.blogspot.com Daveg

    Well, it’s a lot like NCAA football. The polls may say that my team is #1, but you still have to play the game to know for sure. Would that you didn’t, of course, since it didn’t turn out all that well for us here in Columbus, but it just goes to show how useless polls are.

    That said, I can live with it in collegiate sports because in the end it simply doesn’t matter. In elections, the consequences are far worse. There are already screams of “VOTE FRAUD: Diebold Gave it to Hillary!” arising from the disjoin between the pollsters’ guesses and the voters votes.

    When we lose, once and for all, confidence in the electoral process, anarchy will follow. We’ve already seen the long lasting affects the situation in 2000 caused, and the rumblings in Ohio in 2004 were an unhealthy continuance of that. I can only hope that 2008 will be a landslide (although I strongly suspect it won’t be) so the inevitable accusations of fraud are at least tempered a little.