Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

    The power of the tracking poll: The media’s new role in elections

    According to an American Research Group tracking poll done in New Hampshire, as of Jan. 5, Sen. Obama led Sen. Clinton by 12 points. A double digit lead seemed to spell the end for Clinton’s campaign in the New Hampshire primary, and for the following days, this was the headline announced and regurgitated by the media. After the actual voting (gasp! Voting!), after all the ballots were counted, Clinton was announced the winner with 39 percent of the vote, Obama trailing her by 3 points.

    For those who attended the Patricia Williams talk, this was the first example that popped into my mind of what she eloquently termed the media’s narrative: the story the media tells to tickle itself, with a tenuous hold on reality and a sometimes reckless disregard for the consequences that might ensue.

    I do not wish to take a side on this issue; as a Democrat, I have weighed the merits of both Clinton and Obama in my mind, and am yet undecided about who I’ll cast my vote for. Ask me today, it might be Obama. Tomorrow, Clinton. The point is, I wish to point out how the media’s role in the New Hampshire may have swayed the election in Clinton’s favor without making a statement about whether I approve of the direction of this tampering (however unintentional) or not.

    You see, tracking polls such as the ones conducted by nearly every media outlet imaginable are tricky things. They reduce respondents to a group of “likely voters”; these likely voters are weeded out from the masses by answering questions about their past voting record. Say for the past twenty years you’ve written in your own name on every ballot that’s ever been tossed in your direction. You’re an unlikely voter, and the pollster will thank you for your time and hang up.

    If you make it through the first round of cuts, you’re asked a number of questions, the Big Kahuna of which is something along the lines of, “If the election were held today, who would you vote for?” But of course the election is not being held that day, and there are several days still to go: several days for the respondent to change his or her mind. Research groups are, of course, aware of this, and so conduct tracking polls over the course of several days to attain less time-specific data. This information is then used by campaigns to focus and hone messages, and by the media to make rash assumptions.

    Problems inherent in the tracking poll system: people change their minds, unlikely voters do, lo and behold, vote, and perhaps the most influential chunk of the voting block is not people who’ve been waiting for months to vote for their pet candidate, but the independents and late-deciders who make their choice in the car on the way to their preferred polling place. There is a lot of information that tracking polls simply cannot take into account.

    But back to my beef with the media. When the media took Obama’s 12-13 point lead and ran with it, I think a lot of female voters got anxious as Clinton got pounded, especially by exuberant pundit personalities such as Chris Matthews. There is a lot of speculation that such insistence about Clinton’s loss got more women to the polls, women who voted out of a sense of female unity that emerged from Clinton’s negative media coverage.

    Whether or not this reactionary vote won the election for Clinton is debatable. But qualms over the use of tracking polls and particularly its cousin, the exit poll, have been around for a long time, resulting in exit poll prohibitions. The fear is that projecting a winner before the ballots are counted can sway late-deciders or, as in New Hampshire, motivate voters who might have otherwise stayed home.

    I do not wish to say the women who voted for Clinton shouldn’t have, or that Obama was cheated out of a victory; I wish to say that so long as the media is going to manipulate information into the most exciting version of truth, we should be aware that everything that reaches us does so by way of a lens of some kind. It may or may not be a lens that proves ultimately beneficial.

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