Pollsters are taking a lot of heat from the public and the media for not anticipating Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) victory in Monday night’s Iowa caucus. But some of those critics in the media share the blame. Pollsters tried to tell us that the outcome was highly uncertain -- and in some cases, we listened. Still, enough headlines in the last week broadcast Donald Trump’s lead that it gave the appearance of certainty in the polls.
There’s a conundrum for the media, though: "Donald Trump Leads" simply generates more attention and traffic than "We Don’t Know What Will Happen." In reality, the latter probably should have been the headline.
HuffPost Pollster isn’t immune. Since we started doing daily HuffPollster newsletters last week, three of the first six featured headlines about Trump gaining or leading in the polls. Although we did get the appropriate caveats in the articles, and focused on questions about turnout, voters changing their minds and the potential strength of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, we still used the horse race headlines to attract attention.
Why does the message of the horse race prevail so much? In short, because polls are the only thing that give us an idea of where voters stand. We can watch campaign organizations and candidate speeches and a thousand other pieces of the process -- but if we don’t have some concept of what the voters are thinking, it’s difficult to contextualize how the campaigns are going.
It’s also really catchy to be able to put candidates in an order -- stories about the horse race generate much more attention than articles about the caveats to the polls. HuffPost Pollster published two articles on Saturday: The one focused on the horse race was clicked over 700,000 times in three days, and the one explaining what could cause the polls to be wrong got less than half that in the same time. Media requires an audience, and the horse race brings an audience.
In the media’s defense, pollsters often lead their press releases with the horse race numbers. The most recent release from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll in Iowa featured Trump’s lead in the headline. Monmouth University’s last Iowa release was simply titled "Trump Takes Caucus Lead." And Quinnipiac University’s said "First-Timers Put Trump Ahead In Iowa GOP Caucus," which focused on Trump but at least provided some sort of caveat with the issue of first-time caucusgoers. After all, public pollsters need an audience, too -- and pollsters often work closely with the media.
But you don’t have to look far beyond the headlines to find plenty of caveats to Trump’s lead in these releases, and reporters should be able to go beyond the press release headlines in reporting polls.
The Des Moines Register, which has the venerated J. Ann Selzer conducting its polls, used "Donald Trump reclaims lead in latest Iowa poll" as its headline. But Selzer herself was quoted as saying of the poll: "The drill-down shows, if anything, stronger alignment with Cruz than Trump, except for the horse race." The paper did at least put this near the top of the story, but below a headline and opening paragraph touting Trump’s advantage.
The caucus process in Iowa is fraught with opportunities to surprise pollsters and pundits, and Selzer reminded us of that last week, too. At the same time, many were clamoring for her last poll and building her results up as the most accurate. Selzer is an excellent pollster -- but perhaps the story should have been to heed her warnings.
Many in the media did provide the appropriate caveats about the polls. HuffPost Pollster pinpointed the three major factors that would -- and did -- cause the caucus outcome to differ from the polls. We also pointed out that Rubio could be a spoiler. Nate Silver offered his take, and explained that his forecasts showed considerable uncertainty. Yet the message that seemed to prevail was "Trump Leads In Iowa."
Unfortunately, the easiest thing to focus on is probably the least important, as Iowa Republicans demonstrated at the caucus. So while the pollsters are taking heat and evaluating their work after missing the outcome in the Iowa Republican caucuses, the media needs to examine its practices covering polls and how we can balance drawing audiences in without overhyping results. Pollsters didn’t do this alone.
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