The Mainstream Media Plays The Poll Game

by John Hawkins | May 5, 2008 4:40 am

One of the reasons that many people have such an intense distrust of polling data is the little games that the mainstream media plays with them.

For example, take the latest poll from CBS[1], which is titled, “CBS Poll: Support For Obama Rebounds. In Wake Of Controversy Over Former Pastor, Illinois Senator Builds Lead Over McCain, Clinton.”

Here are the nuts and bolts of what the poll shows,

On one key measure, Obama has seen a big reversal since his denunciation of Wright’s remarks on Tuesday. He now leads presumptive Republican nominee John McCain in the hypothetical fall contest by eleven points, 51 percent to 40 percent. That compares to a tied match-up in a CBS News/New York Times poll that was released last Wednesday.

Positive assessments of how Obama has handled the situation with Wright are also reflected by a continued lead over fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton in his battle for their party’s nomination. Among Democratic primary voters (those who have voted or plan to vote in a Democratic primary) Obama’s lead over Clinton has increased — he now leads Clinton by twelve points, 50 percent to 38 percent. That’s up from his eight point lead in the poll released just a few days ago.

So, Obama is dominating, destroying both McCain and Hillary, right? That’s certainly what the article is saying and the story is being seen all over the place. It’s even at the top of the Drudge Report[2]. Does that mean the race is over and Obama has it in the bag?

Ehr…not so fast.

Let’s go over to Real Clear Politics[3] and compare the numbers from the NYT/CBS poll to some other polling numbers.

First off, the CBS News/NY Times ran from 5/01 to 5/03. Gallup has a poll that ran from 4/29-5/03 and Rasmussen has one that ran from 4/30 to 5/03. Both Rasmussen and Gallup have significantly larger sample sizes and personally, I’d say both of them have proven to be better, more reliable pollsters than the CBS News/NY Times combo.

So, how do the numbers break down? In an Obama vs. McCain match-up,

CBS News/NY Times: Obama +11
Gallup: McCain +5
Rasmussen: McCain +3

What about in an Obama vs. Hillary match-up?

CBS News/NY Times: Obama +12
Gallup: Obama +4
Rasmussen: Tie

So, what does that mean?

Well, it’s possible that the CBS News/NY Times is the first poll to catch on to a trend, but it’s more likely that the poll is just an outlier that’s just plain old wrong. That does happen.

Well, if that’s the case, then why did the mainstream media latch on to this poll? The MSM tends to like polls that show results that are very different than what the perceived political situation is because those polls draw eyeballs. Moreover, the MSM REALLY LOVES polls of the sort that confirm their pre-existing biases. Since they adore Obama, want him to win, and want Hillary to quit, this poll is right down their alley and was guaranteed to get huge play.

The MSM does this all the time and it’s a big part of the reason why people don’t have a lot of trust in polls or, for that matter, the mainstream media.

  1. CBS:
  2. Drudge Report:
  3. Real Clear Politics:

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