On Wednesday, March 18, 2015, CNN announced the results of a new poll, showing “Clinton still tops in 2016.” It was so positive for the former secretary of state that the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called it “the best news Hillary Clinton has had in weeks.”
The CNN poll showed that she is leading all of her potential GOP rivals in a hypothetical presidential election by at least 11 points, including the two ostensible front-runners, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, by 15 points. Moreover, she has a dominant lead over all potential Democratic candidates for the party’s nomination. There has been little change in her party support over the past year, and no change in the past month.
CNN’s report itself noted that “her prospects for 2016 appear largely unchanged compared to polls conducted before the news broke about her use of a personal email address and home-based server while serving as secretary of state.”
Two days earlier, however, Briana Keiler announced on CNN’s Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer that “Clinton rating drops amid email uproar.”
It was the same poll that two days later would show Clinton with the “best news” she has had in weeks, and that her 2016 prospects were largely unchanged in the wake of the email flap.
But on Monday, CNN chose to cherry pick the numbers to make it look like the email flap was in fact causing her problems.
The selected poll results showed 53 percent of Americans with a favorable view of Clinton, down from 59 percent four months earlier. The poll also showed just 50 percent of Americans saying she is honest and trustworthy, down from 56 percent a year earlier. Keller cited the declines in both measures as evidence of the negative impact of the email controversy.
CNN Cherry Picks Measures to Make It Appear Clinton Hurt by Emails
What Keiler did not reveal, however, was that in the same section that measured the two negative changes in Clinton’s popularity, there were two other measures showing positive changes – 57 percent of Americans saying she is someone they would be proud to have as president, up from 50 percent a year ago; and 58 percent saying she “says what she believes and not what she thinks voters want to hear,” up from 54 percent seven and a half years ago!
OK…it’s obvious. Comparing a measure today with the same measure more than seven years ago, and then attributing the change to something that happened in the previous week, is ludicrous. On the other hand, comparing two measures four months and a year apart, and then attributing any change to events that happened in the past week, also seems ludicrous.
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Ideally, there would be legitimate “before” and “after” measures, taken shortly before the controversy erupted, and then again at some point shortly afterward. But CNN had no legitimate “before” numbers, relying instead on “before” figures that were months earlier. (More about this in a moment.)
In any case, if Keiler is going to make such comparisons, it’s more than a bit disingenuous to present the negative findings in the poll but ignore the positive findings in that same poll.
In fact, the CNN polling unit did not hide the contrary numbers, but instead headlined its first report, “Poll: Hillary Clinton’s email divides public.” In that report, the polling director, Jennifer Agiesta, noted the positive increase in the “proud” to have Clinton as president, along with the negative changes in the other two measures. But once her report got to The Situation Room, the more balanced analysis got replaced by a tendentious one.
Other Polls on Clinton Favorability
One of the enduring problems with media polls is that each news organization generally refuses to acknowledge other polls on the same subject. CNN’s comparison of its current favorability measure with its four-month old favorability measure is typical of the news media – and often presents erroneous conclusions, as it did in this case.
It’s true that Clinton’s favorability has declined in the past couple of years, as shown by the HuffPollster graph below. It’s an adjusted average of all major polls that ask the same favorability question about Clinton. During her years as secretary of state, her favorable ratings were quite high. Once she left office, and especially began re-entering the political fray as a possible presidential candidate, her favorable rating declined.
As of the middle of March, her HuffPollster average was 48.5 percent favorable, 44.4 percent unfavorable. Those numbers are slightly more positive than her rating at the end of last year, but more negative than CNN’s current 53 percent to 44 percent numbers. Whatever the differences, there is no evidence the email controversy had a negative impact even on this measure.
It’s typical that news organizations will release parts of a poll over an extended period of time. That way, they get several news stories out of any given poll. But for a news organization to release two contradictory news stories based on the same poll, rather than provide an overall balanced assessment of the results at one time, certainly borders on unprofessionalism. It’s especially disturbing when the first story is deliberately contradicted by some of its measures, which the news organization has chosen to ignore.