Every major media outlet has an entrenched, ratings-based interest in the 2008 Presidential Election being a close, neck and neck battle up until the finish line on November 4th. CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC are experiencing record spikes in viewership. The closeness of the poll numbers between John McCain and Barack Obama puts a spot light on each candidate's daily statements and actions, lending truth to the presumption that at anytime a sufficiently bad gaffe or misstatement might swing the pendulum of political support towards either side. The maintenance of such political theater and intrigue has been the network's key to insuring that Wolf Blitzer, Sean Hannity, and Chris Matthews meet their respective ratings expectations.
Fox News and MSNBC for example pick and choose which polls to display during their news stories depending on what their given agenda is for that day. Fox readily withheld a poll showing McCain is losing support among independent voters in favor of highlighting a poll showing that Sen. Obama is seen as the "riskier" presidential choice. This clear manipulation of poll data is fueled by the knowledge that polls do indeed sway public opinion and can have a huge impact on future voter actions and outlooks.
If a poll were to indicate that Obama had opened up a double digit lead over McCain after his foreign trip, McCain will seem weak and undeserving politically. Those who were supporting McCain mainly because of his perceived political strength would start to question that support, which might lead to a change in their vote. In addition, a double digit lead would help Obama gain those voters who adhere to the herd mentality and vote for the seemingly popular choice.
Because of what is at stake when one presents polling data, the nature of our news media's current fascination, manipulation, and over-reliance on polling needs to be viewed with sufficient skepticism.
Firstly, the underlying assumption of all polls is that the respondents are telling the truth.
No oaths or signed affidavits accompany poll questionnaires to insure that respondents are not simply lying. Despite this known fact, data that is gained from polling is very often perceived by the public as the absolute truth.
In everyday life we see examples of people saying one thing in public, and then subsequently feeling or acting a completely opposite way behind closed doors. Many were surprised when the founder of Hillary Clinton's anti-Obama PAC "Party United Means Action" (PUMA) Darragh Murphy, was outed as having been a significant contributor to John McCain's 2000 presidential run. Karl Rove could have voted for Ralph Nader in 2004 and Bill Clinton could have voted for Bush in 2000. The point is, unless we hook respondents up to lie detectors, we just don't know for sure what people's preferences are.
We also have no idea how many respondents in any given presidential election poll voice their support for Sen. McCain because they live in racist communities where alienation might result if it ever got out that they expressed support for a black candidate. We also can not tell from polling how many respondents are saying they support Sen. Obama simply because they believe that it is the "trendy" thing to say, knowing full well that once the curtain is closed on November 4th they will pull the lever for McCain. The central logical fallacy at work here is that polls ask respondents to divulge their voting preference, a decision that has been historically private, assuming that there are not a myriad of incentives for respondents to misstate their vote.
Polls are also flawed in their ability to gauge the opinions of certain groups of likely voters. In a piece titled "How Are Polls Conducted?" by Frank Newport, Lydia Saad, David Moore, the writers acknowledge that certain groups of voters are excluded from polling:
College students living on campus, armed forces personnel living on military bases, prisoners, hospital patients and others living in group institutions are not represented in Gallup's "sampling frame." Clearly these exclusions represent some diminishment in the coverage of the population, but because of the practical difficulties involved in attempting to reach the institutionalized population, it is a compromise Gallup usually needs to make.
Many analysts are predicting record turnout among the 18-29 "youth" voting block, especially those who are enrolled in college. Due to the fact that sites like rockthevote.com have made registering to vote extremely simple, 18-29 year-old are expected to have a huge impact on November 4th. The internet has also made it easier for young folks to contribute financially to campaigns. The willingness to make a financial contribution to a campaign in one of the most reliable indicators that a registered voter will make it out to the polls on Election Day. Yet, despite these new developments in the 2008 race, the youth movement is continually left out of polling data, effectively giving the public a very skewed view of the 2008 presidential electorate.
It is clear that the relative "margin of error" notifications that currently accompany polling data are not sufficient disclaimers. It is the duty of the media to delve into the methodology of each poll during presentation of its data, clarifying the way a poll was conducted, the relative race, age, and geographic locations of its respondents, as well as the political affiliations of respondents. Polls and their limitations should go hand and hand when they are presented, not doing so is does the American public a great disservice.