November 04, 2015

How many times have you heard media commentators saying things like “all bets are off” when discussing the 2016 GOP presidential nomination contest? Unfortunately, you have no doubt heard this sort of “analysis” a whole lot more often than the truth…the much less exciting and marketable truth. The truth is that neither Donald Trump nor Ben Carson are going to be the next president of the United States. The truth is that media polls like the recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson tied in a hypothetical 2016 general election match up are nothing more than counter-intuitive attention grabbers concocted by the media to attract audiences.


Interestingly, everyone who pays attention to politics inside the news media and out regardless of how it is marketed absolutely understands this reality. Even as they write or talk about polls like this recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll media commentators feel constrained to mention that the “experts” still don’t give these outsider candidates much of a chance, and yet they continue to treat these polls like credible (indeed the most credible) evidence that in this race “all bets are off,” all the while pretending that margins of error and other technical details of the polls driving their storylines are of no consequence. Indeed, the gap between the experts’ take and the poll results is itself exploited as a ratings producing news story about confounded experts. In our present anti-intellectual political environment, experts being confused or wrong is pure gold.


Bay Stater’s might be uniquely positioned to understand the difference between reality and the poll-driven ongoing saga that is the media’s coverage of the GOP presidential nomination contest. We got a preview of what happens when inaccurate primary horse-race polls are relied on by the political media to frame an election campaign narrative in the summer and early fall of 2014 when Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman, and Don Berwick’s electoral progress was grossly misrepresented in the weekly media-sponsored polls and the poll-driven press coverage of the Democratic gubernatorial primary race last year. When the Gallup Organization recently announced it was getting out of the primary horse-race polling business, I frankly assumed they were trying to avoid the embarrassment suffered by the Massachusetts pollsters and journalists who got the Coakley-Grossman contest wrong.


I think it’s worth considering whether or not the experience of the pollsters and journalists who covered the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary in Massachusetts can shed any useful light on the prognostic value of current polls giving huge leads to GOP presidential candidates whose campaigns, when judged with more fulsome criteria, are very unlikely to succeed.  


In 2014, Martha Coakley enjoyed a lead in the polls that went from over 50 points in the spring to a still very comfortable lead of 21 point in the final polls prior to primary Election Day. Her chief rival, State Treasurer Steve Grossman, on the other hand, had a demonstrably superior ground game, a huge advantage in endorsements, and a much better general election viability argument from start to finish.  Throughout the spring and summer months journalists touting weekly polls framed all of their coverage of the race around the assumption that Coakley was way ahead. They wrote complex stories about why, despite his many advantages, Grossman was not connecting with voters. Because Grossman had easily won the Democratic State Convention’s endorsement for governor, there were also stories about the big differences between Democrats who attend party conventions and rank-in-file Democrats who vote in primaries. I do not recall even one single story from the professional press that took seriously the idea that the polls were exaggerating Coakley’s support. When I began openly questioning the gap between the picture being painted by the polls (and the poll driven media analysis) and the picture presented by a more comprehensive diagnosis of the race, there was pretty serious pushback from pollsters and journalists. The Boston Globe’s Evan Horowitz was under-stating this pushback when he later wrote, “Duquette’s arguments were met with limited skepticism at the time (said Boston Magazine writer David Bernstein, “If I want a baseless claim that a Dem frontrunner is in trouble I’ll read the Herald”).”


Current polls showing Trump and Carson way ahead of the GOP pack are almost certainly “false positives” for the billionaire bloviator and the brain surgeon “shattering the stereotype about brain surgeons being smart” and the experts do keep trying to provide reality checks amidst this reality TV show style primary contest, but the mainstream media’s use of polls to prop up highly unlikely storylines because they sell better than reasonable analysis continues essentially unabated.


Meanwhile, among data journalists and academic bloggers there are plenty of high quality and realistic analyses of the current GOP race. An excellent example of which was published at fivethirtyeight.com on Wednesday. David Wasserman’s piece explains some of the relevant factors in the GOP contest that cannot be adequately captured by horse-race polls. He writes, “[t]here are plenty of reasons to be cautious of national polls that show Trump and Carson leading. They may fail to screen out casual voters, for instance, and leaders at this point in past years have eventually tanked. But perhaps the biggest reason to ditch stock in these polls is that they’re simulating a national vote that will never take place… In reality, the GOP nominating contest will be decided by an intricate, state-by-state slog for the 2,472 delegates at stake between February and June. And thanks to the Republican National Committee’s allocation rules, the votes of “Blue Zone” Republicans — the more moderate GOP primary voters who live in Democratic-leaning states and congressional districts — could weigh more than those of more conservative voters who live in deeply red zones.


Realistic analyses of the 2016 election continue to be largely ignored by most of the national news media talkers and writers. On air segments or columns/blog posts acknowledging realistic analyses of the ongoing presidential primary races in both parties are lightly sprinkled in with the “infotainment” that pays the bills. As long as the imperatives of the media marketplace are given greater weight than the duty to inform and educate the public, national media outlets will continue to distort political reality in order to produce enough marketable content to satisfy their 24/7/365 political programing needs. Sadly, the unchecked role of big money in our politics combined with the increasing ratings value of big celebrity in media coverage of our politics promise to make this media-generated gap between political reality and political reality TV even greater.

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