Editor’s note: Every January, iMediaEthics’ polling director David W. Moore assembles the top ten “Dubious Polling” Awards for iMediaEthics. The tongue-in-cheek awards “honor” the previous year’s most questionable actions in media polling news. The 2019 awards are the 11th in this series.
10. The Florence Nightingale Award
Winner: ABC News/Washington Post, Pew, and NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist, for their support, above and beyond what normal polls show, for the Affordable Care Act.
For the past eight years, since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, aka: Obamacare, the Kaiser Family Foundation has tracked public opinion on this legislation.
In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump as president, public sentiment changed from a net negative to a net positive. Still, the net positive was modest, maxing out at about ten percentage points (50% favorable, 40% unfavorable).
Gallup found a similar change in its tracking of public opinion, again with a change in 2017 and a net positive sentiment at about ten percentage points.
But at the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, three polling organizations somehow found a much more supportive public.
Instead of a modest net positive, ABC/WP found a 22-point net positive, Pew an 18-point net positive, and NPR/PBS/Marist a 25-point net positive!
It’s not clear how these polls were able to pull off such a feat, given what the Kaiser Family Foundation and Gallup had shown over the years to be a more gradual evolution of public opinion.
However it happened, the apparent widespread support for the Affordable Care Act, regardless of what other (and probably more accurate) polls showed, is commendable – and would, no doubt, were she alive, be enthusiastically embraced by the most celebrated nurse in history, whose writings sparked worldwide health care reform: Florence Nightingale.
9. The Sisyphus Award
Winner: The Associated Press, for updating its polling guidelines in April 2018, proclaiming that “poll results that seek to preview the outcome of an election must never be the lead, headline, or single subject of any story.”
As I commented when the announcement was first made: Good luck with that!
The intentions behind the new guidance are no doubt laudable. There are plenty of political scientists and pundits and even politicians who argue that the campaign period is overloaded with polls, and poll stories. That has been true since the news media began sponsoring their own polls in the 1970s.*
But poll stories have come to dominate much of campaign news. It’s much easier to write about a poll than to do the digging for new and insightful information that’s required for a news story.
And, despite AP’s reputation for setting journalistic standards, it’s clear the major news organizations do not accept the updated guidelines, as reflected in the poll reporting this past election cycle (see here, here, and here as examples).
Getting the news organizations to change their copious coverage of polls would be as difficult as … well, rolling a boulder up a mountain.
*There are many studies that reflect this view, but for one of the most recent, see “Chapter 6: Driving the Campaign Coverage,” in Vincent M. Fitzgerald, The Influence of Polls on Television News Coverage of Presidential Campaigns, Lexington Books, 2018, pp. 121-140.
8. The Severus Snape Award
Winner: CBS News Poll, for its seemingly wizard-like ability to conjure up the appearance of a totally deranged American public.
The poll focused on the Robert Mueller investigation, asking respondents 1) if they felt the investigation was justified; 2) whether Trump should cooperate if he were asked to be interviewed as part of the investigation, and 3) whether the investigation should continue.
According to their results: Less than a majority of Americans (just 44%) felt the investigation was justified, but a substantial majority (64%) nevertheless wanted it to continue!
Moreover, an even larger majority (76%) felt Trump should cooperate with what most people felt was an unjustified investigation!
So, either the American public truly is crazy, or the CBS News pollsters were channeling the wizard from Harry Potter, Severus Snape, who created potions that could bewitch the minds and ensnare the senses. For reasons I’ve explained earlier, I’m inclined to accept the latter explanation.
7. The Red Herring Award
Winner: Colbert King, writing about an Ipsos poll that reveals what he calls the “galling” views of “rank-and-file Republicans.”
As a general rule, when things go wrong in the American polity, I tend not to blame the “people.” What we average blokes know and how we react to public policy events depends greatly on what information is made available and what our leaders say and do. The United States, after all, is a republic, in which we elect leaders to make policy decisions for us.
So, I was not especially sympathetic with the sentiments expressed in King’s column, with the headline: “Your everyday Republican has some galling views.”
Yes, if taken literally, based on the poll questions, some of the views were disquieting.
Forty-three percent of Republicans believed “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” And about a quarter of Republicans agreed the president should shut down the Washington Post, CNN, and the New York Times.
Writing in the Daily Beast, Sam Stein, who first reported the poll results, noted that “swaths of self-identified Democrats and independents supported anti-press positions as well.”
As I noted in an earlier post, one should not take those views as literal representations of public opinion. Using “forced-choice” questions and a format that encourages people to say “yes,” the Ipsos poll gives a distorted picture of public opinion.
More to the point: It’s unfortunate that King seemed so intent on criticizing “the people,” and especially Republicans, for their negative views of the press.
It’s not the “rank-and-file Republicans” with galling views, or the swaths of Democrats and independents with similar opinions, who should concern us.
It’s the leaders who promulgate such anti-democratic views who should terrify us.
Focusing on the average citizen is a humongous red herring.
6. Ignoring the Elephant in the Room Award
Winner: AP/NORC for their poll on whether the president should be able to pardon himself.
Last June, President Trump announced he had an “absolute right” to pardon himself. Later that month, the Associated Press reported the results of an AP/NORC poll, saying that “by a wide margin, Americans believe Trump is wrong.”
As I pointed out at the time, the poll asked a general theoretical question about whether presidents could pardon themselves, which did not mention Trump’s name. Nor did it mention any arguments Trump might make, like he’s the victim of a “witch hunt!” (And so on…)
The poll did show that, in theory, only 13% of the public agreed that it would be “acceptable for presidents to pardon themselves if charged with a crime”; 85% said it was unacceptable.
The problem here is that AP/NORC treated Trump as though he is just a generic president. He’s not.
As Trump said in January 2016, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” What other president would think such thoughts, much less express them in public?
Literally, of course, it’s probably (?) not true that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue with no repercussions. But the statement does speak to the uniqueness of President Trump, who appears to get away with violating norms that most presidents would never even consider.
So, if we want to know whether the public thinks Trump (not just any president) can pardon himself, we have to mention the president’s name. Otherwise, poll respondents might answer based on what they think most normal presidents would do. And that would be ignoring the elephant in the room.
5. The Low Self-Esteem Award
Winner: The Gallup Poll, for its pusillanimous approach to pre-election polling in this year’s mid-term elections.
Yes! We know that Gallup had a couple of bad presidential election years in 2008 and 2012, and lost its polling partner, USA Today, almost surely because of those less than stellar performances. And then Gallup gave up all horserace polling.
But it’s ridiculous when in the midst of the campaign season, Gallup touts the Republican Party’s favorability as the “highest in seven years,” suggesting it will help the GOP in the mid-terms, even though the same poll showed Democrats winning the generic ballot by a stunning 9 percentage points!
As I indicated at the time, a party’s favorability has no predictive power for a mid-term election. But it appears Gallup didn’t want to draw attention to its horserace figure, for fear of being wrong. Instead, the author focused on the meaningless favorability ratings. Ironically, Gallup’s generic poll number appears to be right on the final figure.
Gallup is the most famous name in polling (for good reason), and it doesn’t need to be so timorous. For 13 years I worked with the Gallup Poll as a senior editor, and developed a deep respect for the quality of the people who work there.
Of course, all pollsters make mistakes. George Gallup did himself, both in 1948 and again in 1980. But he didn’t quit.
Perhaps what the Gallup Poll people need these days is a little boost for their low self-esteem. I’m thinking of a slight modification of the “Daily Affirmation” by SNL’s erstwhile “caring nurturer and non-licensed therapist,” Stuart Smalley:
Gallup Poll People, take heart! Look in the mirror and repeat:
“You’re skillful enough…
“You’re bright enough…
“And doggone it, people respect you!”
Now, let’s hope they get back to doing what Gallup has always done best.
4. Making Mountains out of Molehills Award
Winner: The Washington Post for comparing Trump’s “Bottomless Pinocchio” false claims with alleged “Democratic false claims.”
Last December, the Post conducted a special “Fact Checker” poll that “sought to determine what Americans believe – the truth or the president.”
That poll came in the wake of the Post’s tally of more than 7,500 false or misleading claims by President Trump since he took office.
These include 14 false claims by Trump that meet the special new standard, which the Post calls “Bottom Pinocchio” – false claims that “must have received three or four Pinocchios from the Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times.”
Repeating a false claim so often, the Post says, means the person is, “in effect, engaging in campaigns of disinformation.”
The Post notes: No other politician besides Trump has earned a Bottomless Pinocchio.
Yet, in their report of the Fact Checker poll, the researchers decided to compare the impact of some of Trump’s Bottomless Pinocchio false claims to the impact of false claims made by four Democrats.
Now, it’s no secret that politicians of both parties occasionally make false claims. And one could reasonably compare the frequency and impact of those made by Democrats with those made by Republicans.
But Trump’s false claims are so numerous, carrying the weight of having been uttered by the most powerful political leader in the world, that to compare them with those made by the average Republican or Democratic politician seems out of whack.
Indeed, of the four false claims by Democrats cited in the Post report, one was characterized as a “flub,” another as a “bipartisan myth” made by Republicans as well as Democrats, another as based on old data that should have been updated, and the fourth as “bloopers” that “the average member of Congress might make.” These descriptions hardly characterize Trump’s proclamations.
But the Post apparently wanted a “balance” to avoid looking partisan – understandable in this toxic political climate, even if not feasible.
If we think of Trump’s Bottom Pinocchios as mountains, the false claims by rank-and-file Democrats or Republicans are mere molehills by comparison.
And, as we all know, we shouldn’t try to make mountains out of molehills.
3. That Really Takes the Cake! Award
Winner: The Brennen Center for Justice, because of its claim that for Democrats to obtain a “bare majority” in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections, “they would likely have to win the national popular vote by 11 points.”
That prediction meant that if Democrats won the popular vote by 55.5% to the Republicans 44.5%, Democrats would win just 50.1% of the House seats to the Republicans 49.9% (218 seats to 217 seats).
OK! OK! As I described after the election, virtually all political pundits (I include myself in that illustrious class) predicted that the generic ballot (a measure of the national popular vote for House seats) would have to show Democrats ahead by about 7 to 8 points for them to have a chance to win the House.
In fact, according to the latest tally in Wikipedia, Democrats actually won the national popular vote by 8.6 percentage points and won House seats by virtually the same percentage point margin – 235 seats out of 435 gives a 54% to 46% margin of victory. If the Democrats also win the disputed House seat in North Carolina, that would give them a 54.3% to 45.7% margin, a difference of 8.6 percentage points – identical to the popular vote margin.
So, we pundits were all wrong. But the Brennen Center was sooo much wronger! According to their prediction, Republicans should have won majority control of the House, since the national popular vote margin for Democrats is considerably below the 11-point threshold.
As my mother would say, Now, that really takes the cake!
2. The Cherry Picking Award
Winner: Navigator Research for its May 2018 report that most Americans didn’t know that the Mueller investigation had uncovered any crimes.
At the time, Mueller and his team had secured 17 indictments and five guilty pleas. But the poll showed that 59% of Americans believed the investigation had not uncovered “any crimes,” while just 41% believed it had.
That question was asked of half the sample. The other half was asked whether the Mueller investigation had uncovered any crimes committed specifically “by associates and advisors to Donald Trump.”
The results of the second question showed the public evenly divided (51% saying they had not heard, 49% saying they had).
It’s likely that the second set of findings was more representative of what the public was thinking than the first one. But….
Navigator Research cherry picked the first finding for its reporting, and all but buried the second one.
After all, it’s much more dramatic to say “most” Americans are ignorant, than to say, “half are, half aren’t.”
The full truth can be such a bore.
1. The Presidential Seal of Approval Award
Winner: Rasmussen Poll Reports, for its consistently positive evaluation (relative to other polls) of the president’s performance in office.
As Philip Bump of the Washington Post reports, “Since Trump’s inauguration, Rasmussen’s results have been higher than the [Real Clear Politics] average 99.4 percent of the time.”
Moreover, Trump’s net approval minus disapproval ratings are typically eight to nine points more positive with Rasmussen Reports than with the average of all other polls.
And the president has taken notice. According to Bump, he has tweeted approval numbers from Rasmussen polls some two dozen times!
Now, some critics may carp at Rasmussen, claiming that its methodology is suspect, a claim that accounts for several news media organizations not reporting on his polls.
But that would be beside the point. The president apparently loves those polls, and given all the investigations and criticisms he is receiving these days, that’s the least a loyal pollster can do for our beleaguered president.
Besides, who wouldn’t want panegyrics from the president of the United States?