Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Battle of the Polls: new surveys show Americans want to return to the Middle Ages with their smartphones

As time goes by, polls are becoming less about accurately reflecting the views of Americans, and more the drivers of editorial content.

Well, maybe that headline is a bit of an exaggeration. But recently released polls either show that the country is of two minds on every issue, or that one can manipulate a poll to say just about anything the pollsters want it to say.

For supporters of labor rights, the newest New York Times/CBS News poll says that most Americans strongly support the right of public employees to collective bargaining:

Americans oppose weakening the bargaining rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one: 60 percent to 33 percent. While a slim majority of Republicans favored taking away some bargaining rights, they were outnumbered by large majorities of Democrats and independents who said they opposed weakening them.
But then there is Rasmussen, known to be a bit, well, biased in favor of the Republicans. They released a national poll last week that said that fully 67 percent of those surveyed did not approve of the state Democrats tactics to stall the passage of the union-busting bill.

The new NYT/CBS News poll.

Earlier, Rasmussen released another poll that showed that, nationally, "likely voters" overwhelmingly supported the stance of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, while only a minority supported the union position. That poll prompted a column by the NYT's Nate Silver which accused the polling company of intentionally introducing bias into the poll results. Silver said that Rasmussen manipulated its results through the old tactic of asking leading questions with false information in them before getting to the important poll question. If it were an election, this would be called push polling.

Sometimes poll results offer good news for both sides. Yesterday, for instance, Public Policy Polling (PPP) released the results of a survey of Wisconsin voters that showed that if the election for governor were today Scott Walker would be defeated by his Democratic rival. But supporters of the governor could also point to the PPP results and accurately see a silver lining: 45 percent of those surveyed still support the governor despite thousands of protesters occupying the Capitol Building, despite the (lukewarm) support shown by the President.

So what is going on? Polling has become part of the media business, as much a driver of news as events themselves. Don't want to send a reporter to Madison, conduct a poll instead and then talk about the poll. If Fox News wants to continue to call the protesters violent and prone to hate speech, it is easier to talk about a poll than to actually send a reporter to Madison to see that this isn't actually the case.

Also, as the editor of The Daily showed a couple of weeks ago, the news media does not like stories that take time to play out. "Folks, Egypt is over — time for us to get focused on covering America,” Jesse Angelo, editor of The Daily wrote in his widely distributed memo.

But Egypt is not "over", in fact it is getting more and more interesting as Egyptians find themselves in negotiations with the Army over the details of democracy. But the story is even harder to cover now, so let's talk about Charlie Sheen.
A year ago Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos said that he was going to sue the polling firm Research 2000, a company he had used to conduct polls for his political website for over a year. According to Moulitsas, the weekly polls being conducted for this site by Research 2000 were basically bogus -- a conclusion he reached after having a group of statistic wizards" look over the crosstabs of the weekly poll results.

Why is this all important? Because we have been in a new era of polling as content for several years now. The Research 2000 polls were an important part of both the editorial content of the Daily Kos website, as well as being part of the political discussion. In the end, poll results (if proved to be false) were manipulated most likely to feed the beast, so to speak -- to be part of a consistent editorial scheme. Many people are convinced that certain polling firms produce certain results in order to remain useful to the media companies they serve, while at the same time making an attempt not to lose all credibility. (This is why it is common for many polls to begin to merge into one clear pattern near the end of an election cycle as polling firms begin to face their own judgement days.)

But what does the reliance on polling do to the credibility and standing of journalists and their media properties? That was a rhetorical question, wasn't it?

That is why it is easy to look out at the state of the American mind and come to the conclusion that Americans want to end worker rights so that we can all become serfs of huge corporations, while playing games on our shiny new iPhones. Or, alternatively, we are concerned about our basic civil rights, and want to protect those who are teaching our children, patrolling our streets, and putting out dangerous fires. Who knows. But you may be able to get whatever answer you want if you just bring in the right firm.

For editors at publications on opposite sides of the political spectrum this may be a comforting thought.