Polls, pols and the obsession with horse-race journalism

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Does polling drive or mirror public opinion?

Three prominent political figures offered different answers during a spirited discussion Friday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. They agreed that that there are too many context-less statistics and too few ways to winnow the precise survey from the sloppy.

“We’ve stopped listening to the voices of the people — everything is numbers,” said Peter D. Hart, whose company polls for NBC and The Wall Street Journal and who has worked with more than 40 senators and 30 governors. “All the media care about is the latest head-to-head” competition between candidates.

He said the polls have no “bandwagon” effect of driving more support to the favorite, saying he’s never seen the “undecided” vote break toward the winner. “We’re takers, not makers. We reflect public opinion,” he said.

Without a sense of public opinion, he said, Richard Nixon wouldn’t have been impeached. He added that “the public was way ahead of the politicians on opposition to the Vietnam War.”

Hart said he’s never seen public opinion change as rapidly as on the issue of approving gay marriage, saying public opinion helped shape politicians’ growing support.

Hart and former CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley agreed that the media don’t know how to report and analyze a poll. “The problem isn’t the polls. It’s the use of them,” she said. “‘Horse race’ numbers are catnip to reporters.”

Differing with Hart, she contended that polls influence elections because “Americans love to be on the winners’ side.”

Crowley said polls are like tweets, and there’s nothing like talking to people to get nuanced views, as Hart said he was able to do at the start of his career.

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore said, “In the world of [financially] starved journalism, polls are cheap journalism.” She asserted that pollsters directed opinion in support for the Iraq War.

Thursday night, she had told the Harvard audience, “We’re drowning in a sea of polls. Polls raise the pulse of democracy — they don’t take it. A fast pulse is not a sign of health but of distress.”

She added, “Polls drive polls,” causing a “bandwagon effect.”

Lepore and the other speakers deplored the plummeting response rate to pollsters. In the 1950s, she noted, there was a 90 percent response rate while now it’s in single digits.

Friday, she said Internet polling over-represents left-leaning young, white males.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.