Can One Poll Tell the Story?

ABC used one Fox News poll on Sept. 15 to pronounce that Hillary Clinton lost her lead and the presidential race is now a “dead heat.”

But is it?

CBS showed the results of another close poll, but explained in depth why Clinton still has the lead.

CBS Graphic

CBS reminded viewers that the “murky” race is based on “51 separate contests” and their electoral votes.

CBS News

CBS Graphic

CBS’ Elections Director Anthony Salvanto pointed out a Trump win probably depends on winning all four swing states — Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

That, he said, would be tough.

Other in-depth electoral and poll analyses like NY Times Upshot show Clinton with a lead.

Was ABC too quick to judge? Without context, the poll alone showed a very different race.

“Good journalism demands context, and that means overcoming professional jealousy and reporting about rival polls,” Norman Ornstein, contributing editor of The Atlantic, said. “A good pollster will point out reasons for anomalies.”

In an NY Times article, Stop the Polling InsanityOrnstein and Alan Abramowitz explain the current problem with polling and reporting:

“In this highly charged election, it’s no surprise that the news media see every poll like an addict sees a new fix. That is especially true of polls that show large and unexpected changes. Those polls get intense coverage and analysis, adding to their presumed validity … The problem is that the polls that make the news are also the ones most likely to be wrong.”

More from Stop the Polling Insanity:

  • Getting reliable samples of voters is increasingly expensive and difficult, particularly as Americans go all-cellular. Response rates have plummeted to 9 percent or less.
  • Many surveys do not ask questions in Spanish, muddying the results among Latino Americans.
  • Question wording and question order can have big effects on outcomes.
  • With low response rates and other issues, pollsters try to massage their data to reflect the population as a whole, weighting their samples by age, race and sex.
  • This makes polling more of an art than a science, and some surveys build in distortions, having too many Democrats or Republicans, or too many or too few minorities.

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