Saturday, November 12, 2011

Polling sins: Don't do this

I suppose it's that time of year again. You've had your annual cautions about Christmas, so let's proceed with the routine warnings about the abuse of surveys and survey data. Here are two broad concepts to remember:
  • Polls only say what they say
  • Numbers only do what they do
And two larger-scale concepts that bring in some issues of news practice and media routines:
  • Bad habits that good organizations adopt are still bad habits
  • Polls are never as interesting as you think they are 
First up is the hed shown above, which reflects an offense at the top of the story itself:

Eight GOP presidential candidates will debate national defense issues tonight in South Carolina, where conservatives have been steadfast in supporting national defense and military spending.

... But a new poll, out this week, suggests the candidates might be better off talking more about their proposed cures for the country's domestic troubles.

No, it doesn't. It doesn't "suggest" anything about what candidates would be better or worse off talking about. The poll says the economy is the top issue for 73% of older people (average age 64) in South Carolina. Given the situation of the past three and a half years, it'd be a surprise if the economy wasn't the top issue, and since 73% is what Gallup found nationally on roughly the same question, it's hard to see why anyone thought this was an unusual result.

But "most important issue" isn't the same thing as "only issue," so the real question is: Who cares what the reporter thinks?* The candidates have talked a lot about the economy. This is the debate that's supposed to be about "national defense." For most of the candidates, that's some variation of "turrists ayrabs eye-ran obama SHARIA LAW!!1!!1!!," but it's still a set of issues they ought to be put on the spot about.** Interesting things can result; if I'm recalling it correctly, Gerry Ford's famous semi-flub about Eastern Europe came on questions from an NYT foreign correspondent.

We'll take a look at the rest of our questions and propositions in the next few days, time and deadlines permitting.

* And while we're at it, no. "Woot, woot!" is not appropriate for a Twitter message announcing that you're about to go cover a debate among presidential candidates.

** I have this recurring fantasy of getting to ask a question at one of these debates: "Congresswoman Bachmann, here's the view from David Ben-Gurion's grave at the collective farm where he retired. As president, how would you love Israel while chastising them for having so much socialism and communist health care and stuff?"



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like a perfectly reasonable implication to me. Are reporters and editors forbidden to use common sense when reporting about opinion polls? If there's a complaint here, it's that news organizations really ought not to be in the business of giving campaign advice.

11:50 PM, November 12, 2011  
Anonymous raYb said...

I think the point was the "suggest" idea. If you have two polls saying70+ percent are more interested in domestic issues, it's way beyond "suggest." What that should tell a candidate is that "It's the economy, stupid," as Bill Clinton kept saying.

Problem with staying on these shores is the interconnected economy. What happens in economies in, say Greece and China, has a lot to do with the economy in the US.

6:17 PM, November 13, 2011  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I think the point is that although the economy is number one for 73%, nowhere is anyone saying it's also all the rest of the numbers.

10:58 PM, November 13, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home