The Polling Industrial Complex and The Media “Horse-race” Narrative

October 12, 2012 at 2:26 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: 2012 Election, Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Voting Rights

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The Polling Industrial Complex and The Media “Horse-race” Narrative
by nancy a heitzeg

I am writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Joe Biden Beat-down of Lyin Paul Ryan, aka the VP Debates.

The Sunshine Patriots and Fair Weather White Guys got what they claimed they wanted all right — the Democratic Party’s #1 Enforcer had high-sticked, body checked, fact-checked and dropped the gloves, all with in the span of 5 minutes.

And for 90 minutes, He. Never. Let. Up.

Ryan was left with nothing but smirks, endless water sipping and spin, including talking himself into sending more troops into Afghanistan, scaring seniors with Social Security privatization and Medicare vouchers, and denying the right to choose with a new twist – now Position #671 on Abortion from the Romney/Ryan campaign.

A clear win — the contrast was stark and Ryan was clearly out of his league. On all counts.

So were the Hacks happy now?

Well sort of. But tonight — unlike last Wednesday’s melt-down – they decided to be “professional”. Their right leaning counter-parts who declared the bullying Romney a clear victor on “style” were now reduced to complaining that Biden was too assertive. And last week scowling bad, but now smiling is out.

And the insta-polls? A CBS snap poll of undecided voters (no demographic detail provided) had 50% declare Biden the winner. And CNN, whose sample of old white men from the South last week declared Romney the overwhelming winner, now reports that a sample with fairly even Republican Democrat and Indie splits ( no demographic at all) declares Ryan the Winner 48% – 44%.

And if the waters were not muddied enough, Nate Silver decides –within an hour, before the dust is even settled – to report these two “polls” as “evidence” of a Biden “hold”. No clear winner – no probable poll impact.

As Joe Biden would say, “Malarkey!!”

But but but the Page Clicks and the Horse Race must go on.

The Media – Polls Feedback Loop

In this Election Cycle, it is increasingly clear that, for whatever reason, media narratives and polls are self re -enforcing.  Media headlines report polls without context and/or analysis. Shabby pollsters ( and there are plenty this cycle) use polling cycles to drive the narrative, and long standing pollsters may find shifts in opinion that are shaped by media narratives. Media reports that back. Feedback-loop..

The so-called Romney Debate Surge is a case in point.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones sums up this pattern with regard to Presidential Debate #!:

.. the polling I saw suggests that viewers polled during the debate thought it was about even; viewers polled right after the debate though Romney had won; and viewers polled a little later still thought it was a rout. I can’t think of any good explanation for this aside from the effect of the talking heads right after the debate and the firestorm of liberal criticism that quickly turned into a feeding frenzy of outrage. And generally speaking, I’d say there’s plenty of historical evidence that media coverage of presidential debates has much more impact than the debates themselves.

Media ( and of course, the GOP) has an interest in a horse-race and wasted no time in attempting to construct the first debate– in spite of historical evidence to the contrary – as a “game-changer”.

A Black Swan Moment.

Here’s how the narrative and  the polls collided ( or colluded ?? — your choice):

  • “Liberal” media, both TV and blogland, throws a tantrum over President Obama’s performance and gives Romney a pass on bullying racist dog-whistles and a blizzard of lies
  • CNN reports an “insta-poll” of viewers that has 69% believing Romney has won. Of course they fail to tell us that the sample is nearly entirely on over 55 white men from the South
  • Romney Win! becomes the headline, supported of course by the faux CNN poll and more liberal whining
  • Two right wing polling outfits announce a Romney bounce the very next day. Timing is everything.
  • The “non-partisan ” PEW follows with another poll that shows Romney +4. This lead is almost entirely the result of PEW giving Republicans a +8 advantage in sampling, and as a result,  a sample that is also disproportionately older whiter and male.
  • Gallup, as planned, changes from a Registered Voter Screen to a Likely Voter screen, which as is typical, blosters a Republican advantage
  • These sampling issues and methodological questions are buried by MSM headlines and the “horse-race” narrative solidifies.
  • The rest herd on in.

The ultimate result is the illusion of massive Mittmentum.

To quote Joe Biden again, “Thats’ a Bunch of Stuff”

A closer look at polling outfits, polling internals re sampling screens and demographics indicated that the  “debate bump” is mots likely the result of shifting methodologies in combination with an energized GOP base .

Questions to Ask and A Word of Caution

This election season, the  media – polling narrative seems more closely linked than ever in my memory. Just me?? Coincidence?? Post-Citizens United Dark Money?? Who knows??

Just pay closer attention..

In the midst of media-driven narratives and the polling chaos, here are some questions to ask about every reported poll:

  • Who is this outfit?? This season seems to have a cavalcade of questionable outfits who are reporting out results using dubious data.. See Gravis Marketing, Exhibit A.
  • Is this a Partisan Pollster? Some pollsters, like Rasmussen, are known to have a +% Republican sampling lean. Like clockwork. Others like the once non-partisan Suffolk, have blatantly and prematurely declared Romney victories in Florida and Virginia.
  • How is Party ID represented? Even respectable pollsters are tending towards over-sampling Republicans relative to their  percentage of the electorate.
  • Who is sampled? Check the demographics — are there representative samples of  African Americans, Latino/as, all age groups, Women, various income and educational groups?
  • What is the Polling Cycle? Are these Daily Polls, “Insta-Polls” or Rolling Averages? Are the surveys being conducted over several days ? And Which days? The news cycle matters.
  • Are Registered Voters or Likely Voters Reported? This has a dramatic impact on polls results. There are at least 5+ more Democratic Registered Voters, while Republicans typically dominated Likely Voters screens by +2 or more.
  • Do any of these take the impact of Early Voting into account? Are they removing those who already voted from their polls? If yes, then how does that impact the resulting sample?

This election cycle also raises questions about the quality of various Poll Trackers and Electoral College Predictors.   ( See 538 for an excellent recent discussion of poll tracker variations and more) Some trackers use state level data only to estimate electoral college victory — others combine national and state polls. Take your pick.

Gaps have persisted all cycle between the National Popular vote estimates and the state level polling data. The past week has brought wild and rapid swings that seem driven by data that may fail to capture the reality of the ground.

This leads to more questions:

  • Are the poll tracking models relying on polling samples that under-represent key segments of the Electorate?
  • Do the models presume that “outliers” are randomly distributed in all directions and will cancel themselves out?? What if they don’t? What if noise becomes the signal?
  • How effective are predictive models if the input data is foundationally flawed? Is it time for somebody to start more carefully examining the entrails of these polls?
  • Do these models rely too heavily on polls while missing other data re ground games, field offices, differences in targeted state campaigns, the impact of advertizing dollars etc?
  • Do these models inadequately account for other data such economic indicators, Presidential approval ratings and more?

We probably won’t know the answers until after November 6, if then.

But we do know this and always have, that cliche is true:

The Only Poll that Matters is the One on Election Day.

So my advice as always..

Turn off the TV. Clear out the Noise.

Ignore the Polls if it makes you saner. It really doesn’t matter if Obama is or Romney is up by 20+, we will need to GOTV.

Talk to everyone you know and those you don’t. Go to the polls and take 10 with you

Because Everything is at Stake..

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@naheitzeg @Shoq @ppppolls But where does PPP report both as separate numbers and then how do the reconcile them back for apples to apples?


Nancy, thank you so much for this important piece. What I am most troubled by regarding these polls and the false narratives they engender, is the willingness of too many on our side of the isle to accept these national polls, with their LV/RV screens that are  WAY beyond historical trends(differences has been only 2.5 percent, not the 7-10 pt. swings we are witnessing this election cycle)as the gospel. These polls are simply not reflective of what's happening on the ground, esp. in the 'battleground states'.

Seeta moderator

This is superbly done Nancy. You've outdone yourself. The media and polling groups have long been in bed with each other in order to drive manufactured narratives, ratings and profit. If we received more transparency in how the polls are conducted, most of the polling outfits would be out of business. They are businesses and they've got to justify their existence. Excellently done. Going to this a second look when I get home.


Thank you, Nancy.  This is like a house of mirrors.  In all the elections I've been through, and I've been through a lot, I've never seen anything quite like this.  I do believe that Koch, Rove & Co. are making an astonishing effort to drive the media narratives.  And none of the MSM or major polling folks or interpreters are tearing out the guts of the poll samples and internals to see if it makes sense.


For example, a new Mason Dixon (!) poll shows Romney up big in Florida.  But look closely, and they also say Latinos are breaking for Romney - and that, my friends, is not possible.  Also, the Latino sample is virtually all Cuban American.  Not true for the state as a whole.


My question:  how does any of this intersect with voter suppression efforts?  I think we can't know for awhile. 


nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @blkunity Perfect video :) Thank you


and yes white supremacy is the bad root of this all.. more on that soon

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @EricBogan thank you Eric and Amen


In addition,  the unbelievable Presidential race swings are also not reflected in the down ticket races for Senate and the House..


None of it hangs together

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @Seeta t have to say seeta that  read 538 every day as well  as all  the comments on every post., there are a growing Daily!! -  set of questions - like i have raised in this post -- about the soundness of various poll fundametals and the prediction models which rely on them


btw this was an interesting piece today


those who want up to the minute analysis should follow @JeffersonObama on twitter

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @Seeta thank you seeta..


i am forever in your debt for this space


and yes to all you have siad --m never seen it be quite so  dramatic before though.. People need to just turn this all off -- trust their instincy=ts as Joe Biden said and GOTV

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @KayWhitlock that poll and many others are misleading because of the samples


and yes - there i have long believed a link between sampling and MOE going in and voter suppression schemes


GOTV in massive #s in the the antidote


@naheitzeg @Shoq @ppppolls Thank you!

Seeta moderator

 @nancy a heitzeg  @JeffersonObama totally agree, Nancy -- refreshing to see folks questioning the polls -- I've seen it as well on MSM sites like NYT and WP.  Much gratitude for this analysis and expose -- "Citizens United" and a failed fourth estate have created the Romney ascendancy and reinforced oligarchy.  


It is all about GET OUT THE VOTE from this point forward.  


Historically, debates have not impacted or transformed the race.  MSM milking political theater (and that's what it is) to sell soap -- nothing else.


 @nancy a heitzeg  @Seeta  @JeffersonObama  Nancy, I agree @ Jefferson Obama,he really cuts thru the b.s.  and drills down the polling like no other. BTW, I really don't believe that one debate can be a 'game changer' as alot of these pollsters and MSM types are saying. I stand by my orig. comments re: facts on the ground.

Seeta moderator

 @nancy a heitzeg gratitude to you for gracing this space and your always on-point, insightful analyses.  


This is a must read piece to expose our collapsed fourth estate.  We've got to do the work ourselves -- debunk propaganda, focus on substance, organize and GET OUT THE VOTE.  Time is of the essence.  


Three weeks people.


@nancy a heitzeg@Seeta No prob Nancy, I love your posts on TPV. I will leave you with a Jefferson Obama tweet: 

Jeff Gauvin ‏@JeffersonObama

Pollsters acknowledge Obama has a huge Registered Voter advantage in battleground states but wipe out 7 Point leads with +8 LV Screens


Don't believe the hype.


nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @EricBogan  @Seeta i am happy to say as i look around that a growing number of people the sentiment about "The Black Swan" debate..


it just doesn't not wash,, the more ??s asked the more awareness the better


and thnaks again for being here Eric