Election Polling, The Mass Media And Manufactured News In The 2024 National Elections

 

by Richard Cameron


Election Polling, The Mass Media And Manufactured News In The 2024 National Elections

 

In our first installment in this series on mass media election polling, we examined the underlying motives behind the manner in which polling is an element of artificially charged viewer and reader engagement, most notably the phenomenon of “Horse Race Journalism”.  Since then, the polling being featured on such as CNN and the New York Times, Washington Post, The Hill, Politico, Real Clear Politics (anything but) and various of the networks, has persisted in concocting outlandish, trumped up (pun partially intended) conclusions about where voters are in this election at this stage. 

 

Election Polls, The Mass Media, “Horse Race Journalism” And You

 

Now that we’ve laid the foundation for understanding the reality of it, we’re following up with illustrations of Horse Race Journalism in this cycle and the role that pre-fabricated commissioned polls play in it and why when one scratches below the surface, both the polling and the manner in which it is employed, are absurd and manipulative, particularly in the light of one candidate, Trump – being known to voters as someone who lost the previous election by over 7 million votes and is currently a defendant in four separate criminal trials, totaling 91 counts of indictment. 

I will just parenthetically note, that once you see both the manipulation and the defects of the polling we are looking back at, you should be able to discern a pattern and an explanation to any and all mass media polling you will be subjected to in the coming months leading up to November 5.

We’ll start with the ramping up which commenced in Fall and Winter of last year (2023), but we’ll also reference the ridiculously wrong forecasts prior, of which the following is just one example:

 

Screenshot of CNN prediction of a GOP "Red Wave" less than a month before the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections. It was typical of a widely touted narrative that Republicans would rack up a large majority in Congress. It never happened.
Screenshot of CNN prediction of a GOP “Red Wave” less than a month before the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections. It was typical of a widely touted narrative that Republicans would rack up a large majority in Congress. It never happened.

 

To set the table for my objections and other analysts objections to the series of NYT / Siena polls  –  here is the Times’ summary statement about their November 2023 swing state poll’s reputed findings:

 

The results show Mr. Biden losing to Mr. Trump, his likeliest Republican rival, by margins of four to 10 percentage points among registered voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Mr. Biden is ahead only in Wisconsin, by two percentage points, the poll found. Discontent pulsates throughout the Times/Siena poll, with a majority of voters saying Mr. Biden’s policies have personally hurt them. The survey also reveals the extent to which the multiracial and multigenerational coalition that elected Mr. Biden is fraying. Demographic groups that backed Mr. Biden by landslide margins in 2020 are now far more closely contested, as two-thirds of the electorate sees the country moving in the wrong direction.

 

It gets more reality challenged from there, including an absurd claim that African-Americans in those swing states, are trending in the direction of Donald Trump.

 

Voters under 30 favor Mr. Biden by only a single percentage point, his lead among Hispanic voters is down to single digits and his advantage in urban areas is half of Mr. Trump’s edge in rural regions. And while women still favored Mr. Biden, men preferred Mr. Trump by twice as large a margin, reversing the gender advantage that had fueled so many Democratic gains in recent years. Black voters — long a bulwark for Democrats and for Mr. Biden — are now registering 22 percent support in these states for Mr. Trump, a level unseen in presidential politics for a Republican in modern times.

 

Black voters “are registering 22 percent support in these states for Mr. Trump”?  There are many aspects of this polling that should be triggering the “check engine” light to flash on the instrument panel, but this one is a major warning that the poll is cooked. Maybe 22 percent of Blacks support Trump on some other planet, but not planet Earth.  For some historical perspective, let’s look back at the NYT / Siena poll October before last, released just 2 weeks before the mid terms. This was the dumpster fire of their findings then:

 

 “Democrats should be worried about the upcoming election. The latest poll has shown Independent women support the Republicans over Democrats by 18 points — that’s a 32-point shift since last month! Also, 18 percent of Black people suddenly support Republicans, only 47 percent of women say they will vote for a Democratic candidate, and if that’s not frightening enough, a whopping 40 percent of voters 18-29 support Republicans.”

 

I wrote extensively on National Compass about what rubbish this narrative was and from the actual results of the election, I was proven correct in spades.  

 

The Mass Media Narrative On The Midterms Is Misleading

 

 

Re the accuracy deficit of the October 2022 Times poll, Dustin Rowles writing in Pajaba, points out:

 

Eighteen percent of Black people didn’t vote for Republicans in that election — 5 percent did, which is about the same as every other year. Forty percent of 18-29 year-old voters did not vote for Republicans, either: Only 31 percent did, less than in 2020. There was no significant shift among female voters, either: 51 percent voted for Democrats, not the 47 percent that the poll suggested. That poll also showed an overall 49-45 advantage for Republicans.

 

The NYT poll that was dropped on November 5th, 2023, was the second in a series of major newspaper polls, but was an example of an entire litany of abject polling failures. Another among many, was a very similar poll conducted by Abt Associates on behalf of Washington Post / ABC in September of 2023

In a post to X, the platform previously known as Twitter, noted political scientist Larry Sabato — the publisher of the widely-read Sabato’s Crystal Ball — slammed ABC and the Post for putting out a survey which they referred to as an “outlier.”   “Ignore the Washington Post – ABC poll,” Sabato wrote. “It’s a ridiculous outlier (Trump up 10 over Biden—laughable). My question: How could you even publish a poll so absurd on its face? Will be a lingering embarrassment for you.”

Sabato was not alone in calling out the Post and ABC.  New York Times chief political analyst Nate Cohn, at that time, noted that the Post and ABC also referred to their previous Trump-Biden poll as an outlier:

 

“I do have a fairly major quibble with ABC/Post here: if you release consecutive ‘outlying’ poll results — R+7 in May, R+10 today — you don’t get to dismiss your results. If it happens twice in a row in the same race, it’s clear that this is the result of some element of your approach, and either you either need to decide you’re good with it and defend it or you need to go home.” It’s ironic that just a matter of weeks since the Post released the poll he savaged, his own employer released something essentially identical.”

 

It’s ironic that Cohn, who works for the Times, doesn’t hesitate to harshly critique the WaPo polling, but is seemingly oblivious to the fact that his organization’s own polling is fabricated rubbish as well.  What are some of the most methodological defects in the ABC / WaPo poll?

Well, in that poll, for one, it gathered responses not from exclusively registered voters, but for anyone who represented as being over 18 years old. This elevates a lot of people who quite conceivably didn’t even vote in the last election, to the status of being representative of people who actually have voted and are positioned to do so once again.  What is the real value of a hypothetical or prospective voter? If you’re asking me – not much, in terms of predictive value when taking the temperature of the American electorate.

Then there is the skew factor of households with landline phones. Those represent boomers and some remnants of the “greatest generation.”  That cohort is tilted Republican and you look at the Trump rallies and what you see is predominantly what you would see on any given day tooling around The Villages in Central Florida.

In the case of the ABC poll, you had 169 of these households out of the total surveyed, comprising 25 percent. What could go wrong there? For one, the poll admitted that they wound up with 13 percent more Republicans than Democrats based on the landline questionnaires.  If the claimed margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent, doesn’t 13 percent more GOP voters, make such a representation highly suspect?  And adding to the illegitimacy, the WaPo-ABC poll sampling error margin, was significantly higher than that of peers at +/- 3.5%. That is 40% higher than the sampling error of the Quinnipiac Poll, 2.5%, and three times that of Morning Consult, 1%.   Taking this into consideration, it was equally possible that President Biden actually could be leading Trump by as much 3 and a half percentage points!

Another question is how do you know you have a realistically representative sample of the overall population when you do not conform the results to the demographic factors such as marital status, income, employment, household size, and political party – which, given the small sample size to begin with, crucially needs to be accurately representative?  Robert Kaiser, the longtime managing editor of The Washington Post, this poll’s other co-sponsor,  told Time that he refused to showcase such polls in an earlier era calling it “manufactured news.” 

 

 

There are a few possible theories of what is motivating the likes of the New York Times, ABC and the Washington Post to cough up these ridiculous polls so divorced from reality.

One theory you might encounter is that the media (apart from Fox News)  is politically oriented toward Left of center and that is why they want to shock your eyes wide open and get you to take the prospect of Trump winning a second term, seriously, so as to motivate you to register to vote and order your mail in ballot.  Sorry, not buying it.  Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or independent – a liberal, progressive or conservative – at their core, mass media does not actually have a political agenda – they have a profit agenda, first and foremost.

 

 

What best suits them – as is in the above characteristic example, is viewer engagement, especially in the turbulent business environment where all outlets are experiencing, to one degree or another, decreased revenue and profits and an oversaturation of choices competing for the attention of the news consumer. Reporting that puts the viewer’s mind at ease about something as impactful as a national election, is not reporting that scores attentiveness and engrossment. On the other hand, drama is seen as the “Gold in them thar hills.”

The assessment – an accurate one most likely, on the part of network heads and producers is that ginning up the idea that someone perceived as monstrous and malevolent as Donald Trump might actually gain another term in the White House, is the sort of anxiety that sets a lot of their audience on its back heels.

This is what accounts for the persistent reporting on silly topics such as Biden’s age, claims about Americans being singularly fixated about immigration and the supposed defection of minorities and the youth, to Donald Trump’s and the GOP’s side. Couple all that with the incessant bombardment about Biden’s alleged low approval ratings.  They know all this sounds spooky and the pollsters they contract are well aware of what story lines the polls are intended to underline. 

 

Perhaps the corporate media is actually desiring a Trump second term?

 

The other theory, which is equally plausible,  is that these media outlets, being the corporate entities they are – are favorable toward a recapture of the presidency by a party, the Gee Ohhhhhh Pee, and an individual, Donald Trump,  that suit the financial interests of corporations such as broadcasters and the wealthy stockholders and execs of those media conglomerates. One recent development that illustrates this is the reporting that Washington Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, recently appointed a new CEO of the paper. Who is he? Oh, just a major cog in the Murdoch publishing and news empire for many years, William Lewis.

Lewis has spent years working in British media and for Rupert Murdoch-owned companies, the Post reported. He was CEO of Dow Jones and the publisher of the Wall Street Journal for six years and successfully grew the company’s digital subscribers.  He had a career as a reporter and editor of The Daily Telegraph in England. In 2010, he joined the Murdoch-owned News Corp. and helped address the company’s police bribery scandal.  Lewis also served in executive roles at Dow Jones and held numerous roles at the The Financial Times.  

The Post has experienced a drop in audiences and subscribers and left executives offering buyouts to reduce its staff by 10 percent. The company is projected to take a $100 million loss by the end of the year.  It’s notable that Lewis is primarily a British citizen, as Murdoch was, until he received a billionaire’s jump ahead of all the formalities of the immigration process. The Post has been experiencing a push by its employees to unionize the publication. Lewis remembers quite well, how Murdoch decimated unionized employees at his tabloids in England decades ago.

Has Bezos made it explicit that he expects Lewis to attempt to derail labor organizing at the Post? It wouldn’t surprise me. Bezos, by bringing in Lewis, is also signaling to the company and investors, that he desires the paper to take a departure to the political Right.

When you add everything up, especially Lewis having been CEO at Dow Jones and at the top of the org chart at its media entity, the Wall Street Journal, it’s not a great leap to suspect this is the case.  It’s not a leap to conclude that other corporate parents of outlets such as ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, see the prospect of 4 more years of Trump as very beneficial to their bottom line, given their perspective on the advantages realized from Trump’s previous massive tax avoidance gifts to them.

 

We saw this coming . . .

 

Readers will perhaps be skeptical that I started writing this post prior to the elections last year on Tuesday in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio. I don’t mention Mississippi because when election maps are as engineered for voter suppression as they are in that and neighboring states, outcomes are easy to predict with little need for prophetic gifts.

But more recently, there was a remarkable result even in one of those Dixie states – Alabama, where a Democrat pulled a State Senate seat out from under Republicans.  But on my honor, I did begin my reaction to the Times poll on the Sunday prior and I did have a sense that the elections were going to contradict the polling that we were bombarded with for the last several days. Why? Well, let’s just look at a couple of very significant metrics on the timeline of 2020 through 2023. 

A look at the win column between Republicans and Democrats in special elections since 2022, repudiates the authenticity of the plot line the mass media is crafting as does the track record of abortion rights referendums in states the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Michigan  and most recently, Ohio – contradict the national political script the major papers and networks have crafted.  

Back to 2022 for a moment. Here was one that PBS NewsHour was pearl clutching over, in the lead up to the mid-terms.  A poll from the New York Times and Siena College in the weeks and days prior to the 2022 midterms showed a five-point swing toward Republicans compared to the previous month.

 

 

Doug Schoen wrote what now has to be a colossal embarrassment of an opinion piece in the Hill on Halloween night of 2022, a week before the election, stating confidently, the following:

 

“The Republican Party’s midterm prospects have markedly improved over the last several weeks. But will 2022 be a red wave election year on par with GOP victories in 1994 and 2010?  The warning signs are clearly flashing for the Democratic Party. Recent polling finds that support for Republicans — both generically and in individual races — has increased substantially amid heightened national concerns about the economy and crime, two issues that the GOP leads on. Meanwhile, protecting abortion rights, the crux of the Democratic agenda has become a much less salient issue.  

Based on current trends, Republicans will likely gain between 30 to 35 House seats, and come away with a one or two-seat advantage in the Senate. This outcome would flip both chambers of Congress to GOP control, but wouldn’t necessarily rise to 1994 or 2010 levels, when Democrats lost 53 and 63 House seats, respectively.”

 

Schoen made extensive reference in the article, to Real Clear Politics and their much cited polling averages. RCP even projected that beyond gains in the House, “Republicans will pick up three Senate seats, two more than the GOP needs to secure the majority. In other words, Democrats wouldn’t gain any seats — even open seats currently represented by Republicans, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina — and Democratic incumbents would lose in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.” 

This sort of nonsense, based on nothing substantive, was typical across the mass media. So much so, that it looked as it there was a competition among them to gin up alarm and anxiety among news consumers, specifically non-Republicans.

One excuse that was offered up post election, was that they paid too much credibility to Real Clear Politics polling averages. That’s hard to believe, when everyone who was savvy to the stock in trade over there at Real Clear Politics, knows that the site is a shadow GOP platform masquerading as an objective purveyor of a wide perspective of opinion. Their polling averages belie that notion. They were jam packed full of defective, manufactured GOPaganda opinion surveys.

Remember, the talking heads and writing wonks, in the lead up to the midterms last year were also harping about “President Biden’s weak approval numbers”? Deja Vu fast forward to November 8, 2022, y’all. Same shit, different day. Then fast forward to April 2024 – more of the same.

FiveThirtyEight, which is now joined at the hip with ABC News, didn’t escape unscathed either. On October 24th – also a week before the mid-terms, one of their analysts, Nathanial Rakich (“Nathanial”? Is that another pseudonym for Nate Silver?), opined that:

 

 “This change (in generic ballot polling) has affected FiveThirtyEight’s midterm forecasts too. Democrats’ chances of holding onto Senate control have fallen from 66-in-100 on Oct. 13 to 55-in-100 today. And Republicans have gone from having a 69-in-100 chance of flipping the House on Oct. 13 to an 80-in-100 chance today.”

 

They even supplied a hilariously wrong chart the very day of the elections,  to accompany their shitty forecasting:

 

 

 

 

Veteran Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg  who has previously advised the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and is the president of the progressive think tank NDN , said at the time that, “There was a massive media failure this cycle. The failure that just took place is more grave than the polling error [in 2020] because there were a lot of really smart people who basically misled tens of millions of people through their political commentary in the final few weeks.”

Some in the media, like Benjamin Toff at Politico, see the problem as one of defective polling and the inability of the front line mass media reporting to effectively analyze the data they regurgitate to national audiences over the airwaves or the printed page. Toff comments that:                                      

 

Polling has exploded even as the media has become less equipped to process it and convey it accurately. According to one estimate, by the end of 2012, more than 1,200 unique firms and institutions had conducted 37,000 separate public opinion polls in the United States, mostly since the 1990s. By my count, that number ballooned to 48,600 by the end of 2016. Yet many newsrooms now lack the expertise to evaluate and analyze raw polling data, particularly the underlying weighting and modeling assumptions employed, which can significantly shift results.

While some organizations maintain a small team of staffers to plan and coordinate surveys and write up results, the process of sampling, fielding and analyzing survey data no longer occurs in-house at any American news organizations. As one pollster said, “In this explosion of data, the irony is the resources to make sense of it aren’t there.”

 

We don’t see that as the most plausible explanation behind polling connected to Horse Race Journalism.  Our perspective of it centers more around the imperative to produce the most alarming and disquieting forecast about the state of public opinion regarding the election and the corresponding competition between these news platforms to exploit that product.  But even if one insists on interpreting the demonstrable failure of Horse Race polls, there is still an argument to be made that it is at best, irresponsible for the mass media to merchandize them as an integral component of election coverage.

In our final installment in this series, we will examine the question of whether or not election polling is scientific and if not, why not.  Stay tuned.

 

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