On the eve of a presidential election, polls, which, at press time, show Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) with a considerable lead over Republican Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) – heavily drive the election media narrative. Yet some critics, with the memory of wildly incorrect surveys conducted before the New Hampshire Democratic primary fresh in their minds, say that polling is widely misunderstood, by both journalists and the public, as crystal balls.
“This notion of pinpoint accuracy in pre-election polls is a fantasy,” says Gary Langer, director of polling at ABC News. “This is not laser surgery on your eyeball here. I reject the idea of pinpoint accuracy in polling. We are not attempting to predict what will happen, but simply to report as best we can where the public is at today.”
Some of the most prestigious political polls – including The New York Times/CBS, The Washington Post/ABC, and The Wall Street Journal/NBC – are associated with media whose brands lend credibility to the data. Such agreements also allow the news outlets to view the polls' methodologies before reporting on them, and they add depth to reporting, Langer adds.
“[Polls are] fundamental to our coverage,” he says. “But it's not about the final horserace estimates. We do these polls to understand how people are responding to the issues and the themes; this goes well beyond the score of the game.”
Political campaigns themselves also dump significant portions of their war chests into polling, which can diverge from media or opposition polls. In the weeks prior to the presidential election, McCain surrogates have routinely disputed Obama's reported lead in the media polls.
Also, as the communications landscape shifts, an overreliance on polling is risky for media outlets, says Thomas Patterson, Bradlee professor of government and the press at Harvard University.
“[Polls] say, ‘[The press is] at the center of the media universe'... and [they are] just one more indicator that [the media is] at the head of the pack,” he says. “But I do think [all the major polling outlets] are searching a bit right now. The old assumptions... in polling have been pretty much thrown out the window because the response rates are so low and increasingly people are using cell phones. So there are a lot of mathematical readjustments going on behind the numbers.”
To that concern, Langer says ABC News includes cell phone-only samples in its tracking polls, even though studies show it creates no substantive difference.
“The question is not whether we are going to report what people think, but whether we are going to report it accurately and meaningfully,” he adds. “If news organizations didn't conduct public opinion polls and report on the results – does that mean we wouldn't seek to know? Do you think the campaigns would stop polling? Or do you think interest groups? lobby groups, and corporate groups would stop polling? No, they would simply be the ones who had the data and [would] tell us what they wanted us to know of it.”
However, removing polls from the media narrative wouldn't take pundit predictions from the airwaves or columns. Even if polls disappeared, media would find other – less informed – ways to tell the story, says Mark Mellman, president and CEO of polling and consulting firm The Mellman Group.
“Before media outlets were doing polls, they were still doing horserace journalism, but their insights were based on less scientific straws in the wind,” he says. “They'd report on who endorsed whom, what are the county chairs for each party saying, or what are the people at the bars saying.”