Why report news when creating it is so much more fulfilling?

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RCP's Electoral Map

I was watching my favorite Bubblegum Journalism channel – CNN – yesterday, when I saw a report indicating that Barack Obama’s strong lead has been diminishing while he has focused the past week on foreign affairs. The key data point put forth as evidence was Obama tanking in the polls in Minnesota. According to the story, his 17 point lead from June had shrunk to only 2 points.

I found this a curious development, even for a state that elected Jesse Ventura to its highest post, so I thought I’d look at the polling data. A good source for polling data is RealClearPolitics.com (RCP), a site that does a nice job of providing daily updates of all kinds of polls. They track national polling and also state-by-state polling of the presidential race. They show individual poll results, and then also provide the “RCP Average” of a selection of recent polls, to give what hopefully is an accurate ongoing snapshot. Turns out, CNN has been conveniently cherry-picking poll results.

[UPDATES! See the bottom of this post for late-breaking updates.]


Looking at Minnesota, the current RCP Average is Obama at +5.3 (meaning Obama leads by 5.3 percent). Examining the polling breakdown reveals the Quinnipiac poll dated 7/22 giving Obama a 2 point lead. This contrasts with the Quinnipiac poll dated 6/24 where Obama had a 17 point lead. Apparently, CNN had it right! But wait: RCP also lists a Rasmussen poll dated the same day (7/22) as the Quinnipiac poll, with Obama at +13. The last 5 Rasmussen polls, going back to April, have put Obama at +14, +15, +13, +17, and +13, a pretty consistent set of results given the margin of error. It seems the bizzare Quinnipiac fluctuation might say something more about Quinnipiac’s methods between its two polls than anything else.

But the story here really isn’t either Quinnipiac’s polling methods or the fortunes of the Obama campaign. The story is CNN’s apparent habit of selecting polling results in order to create ongoing drama in a critical presidential election. Surely the professional journalists at CNN had access to the same Rasmussen results mentioned above, but made a deliberate decision to ignore them, presumably because it would take some of the “pop” from their story if they gave the full picture.

The Minnesota result is only the beginning of what appears to be a concerted effort by CNN to “keep things interesting”. Looking at the CNN national polling map, we see Virginia identified as red, meaning McCain is winning, and the poll connected to that designation (VCU) shows McCain up by 8 points. Yet the RCP Average for Virginia reveals Obama at +1. The VCU survey cited by CNN was done on May 12-18. RCP lists no less than six polls that are more recent. Five of them give Obama the lead, while one gives McCain the lead by a single point. Clearly this is a very close race, but why did CNN feel it necessary to quote a poll that is over two months out of date and well outside the statistical norm of the other polling? Are they too lazy to have looked at other polls, or are they intentionally selecting a certain poll merely for effect?

What about Colorado? The CNN map paints it red, and shows McCain up by 2 points on the strength of a Quinnipiac poll dated 7/22. To CNN’s credit in this case, the Quinnipiac poll is at least the most recent one identified by RCP. However, the RCP Average puts Obama at +1.7. RCP identifies nine other polls, eight of which show Obama with the lead except a Rasmussen poll in March where Obama and McCain were tied. The most recent Rasmussen poll, dated 7/22, had Obama at +3.

What about Nevada? CNN paints it red based on a Mason-Dixon poll dated June 11. They ignored the most recent poll identified by RCP (again, Rasmussen) with Obama at +2. This is a 5 point improvement from the previous Rasmussen poll from June.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

What about the critical state of Florida? CNN paints it red on the basis of an ARG poll dated 7/21 giving McCain a 2 point edge. The RCP Average for Florida reveals a tie. The most recent Rasmussen poll (7/22) shows Obama at +2. The most recent Quinnipiac (6/16) shows Obama at +4. To be fair, the RCP site is not yet showing the most recent ARG poll cited by CNN, and only shows ARG’s poll from June which had Obama at +5. The question this begs is: why does CNN have the most up to date polling only when it favors McCain? Why does CNN ignore more recent polling only when that polling favors Obama?

What about Indiana? This is another close race that needs an honest analysis. CNN paints Indiana red on the basis of a poll done in APRIL by the South Bend Tribune (a journalistic juggernaut?) giving McCain an 8 point lead. Yet the RCP Average for Indiana is Obama +0.5. The surveys used in that average include the poll cited by CNN, but also three other polls, all of which give Obama an edge, by +8, +1, and +1.

What about New Mexico? Here, CNN simply punts, stating “No Polling Information Available”. RCP gives eleven different polls conducted by two pollsters (SurveyUSA and Rasmussen). The most recent 5 polls, dating back to May, give Obama +6, +3, +8, +0 (tie), and +9, respectively. Why could The Most Trusted Name in News not find these polls as easily as I could?

All of these examples show CNN identifying states as red where the preponderance of polling suggests they should be blue (or neutral in the case of Florida). Are there counter-examples where CNN reported a state as blue when RCP data suggest it should really be red? No, there is not a single such example. Assuming CNN is not politically biased, this evidence suggests they are trying to help the underdog in order to keep the story as “hot” as possible. This is news creation, not news reporting. It is sensationalism, not journalism.

On a national level, the CNN “poll of polls” gives Obama a +3 edge. By contrast, the RCP national polling average gives Obama a +5 edge, identifying the following polls dated between July 13 and July 26 (all in favor of Obama): ABC/WaPo +3, CBS/NYT +6, NBC/WSJ +6, Fox News +1, Rasmussen +5, Gallup +9.

RCP also has a nice electoral map which allows the reader to play “what if” games. Based on the polling data, they identify each state as solid blue, leaning blue, sold red, leaning red, or tossup. On this basis, ignoring tossups, Obama leads in electoral count by 238 to 137. The magic number is 270, leaving Obama 32 votes short of victory. Of the 12 identified tossup states, Obama would reach the magical 270 by taking as few as two of the 12, e.g., Florida plus New Mexico, or Ohio plus Michigan, or Ohio plus Virginia, or Florida plus Colorado. If all voting went according to current polling in these tossup states, Obama would win 322 to 216 (that’s even giving Florida to McCain). For McCain to win, he will need a clean sweep of all of the major tossup states – Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Missouri.

Perhaps not surprisingly, based on what is revealed above about CNN’s practices, their own electoral map works hard to try to keep things looking more competitive. They give 221 votes to Obama and 189 to McCain (38% higher for McCain than RCP’s data would seem to justify). Their basis for this allocation is self-servingly vague: “CNN’s Electoral College estimate is based on several factors, including polling, voting trends, and ad spending.” A more honest answer, perhaps, is that CNN bases its reporting less on objective facts and more on whatever it deems is most useful in keeping the public tuned into their infotainment channel long enough for them to see their advertisers’ wares. Perhaps they should change their slogan to: “The most sold out name in news.”

UPDATE #1: As of this morning, CNN has updated its “poll of polls” to show Obama’s lead increasing to 6 points. Meanwhile USA Today, my other favorite Bubblegum Journalism source, is giving McCain a 4 point lead. It seems that both claims can be true at the same time thanks to the wonders of sponsored polling.

USA Today points to a new Gallup/USA Today poll of 791 “likely voters”. This poll was conducted from 7/25 to 7/27. A Rasmussen tracking poll conducted over the same period, and also of “likely voters”, has Obama at +3. Rasmussen polled 3000 likely voters, a sample size almost four times larger than the Gallup poll, but of course USA Today won’t report on that competing poll because they were co-sponsor of the Gallup poll.

Interestingly, Gallup also conducted another poll over the exact same period, of 2674 registered voters, and that poll gives Obama an 8 point lead! How to explain an amazing 12 point swing between two Gallup polls conducted at the same time? Obviously it must hinge heavily on the definition of “likely voters” versus “registered voters”.

Who is a likely voter? In this poll … that was determined by how much thought people have given to the election, how often they say they vote and whether they plan to vote in the election in November.

In other words, a likely voter is whatever the polling body decides is a likely voter. This kind of fast and loose approach to polling makes it very easy to tweak the results to show whatever your sponsor (USA Today, in this case) wants to see in its headline.

Journalism takes another kick in the groin, this time thanks to USA Today instead of CNN.

Update #2: It gets funnier. USA Today asked Gallup editor Frank Newport about the polling differences. Newport said “registered voters are much more important at the moment, because Election Day is still 100 days away”. So, naturally, USA Today decided to lead with the less important likely voter figure rather than the” much more important” registered voter figure. Amazing.

Newport went on to explain the polling difference this way:

As for the difference between the [Gallup] tracking and USA TODAY/Gallup polls, [Newport] says not to read too much into it. “Statistical noise” may be largely to blame.

Statistical noise? Statistical noise??? Gallup reports the error margin for the likely voter poll at +/- 4 points, and the registered voter poll at +/- 2 points. That means their professional statisticians believe the largest possible statistical differential between the two polls is 6 points. Yet, Gallup’s own editor shrugs off a 12 point differential as merely statistical noise? Doesn’t that suggest that the stated error margins are pure nonsense?

Update #3: In order to clarify the point of this post, the CNN Electoral Map image has been replaced by the RCP Electoral Map image, and a link has been provided to the CNN Polling Map. See the attached commentary stream for further explanation.

Update #4: Another good site offering broader polling data may be found here:

http://www.electoral-vote.com/

Note that this site supports the points made in this post.

(Recommendation by gummitch)

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23 thoughts on “Why report news when creating it is so much more fulfilling?

  1. The story is CNN’s apparent habit of selecting polling results in order to create ongoing drama in a critical presidential election.

    Hole.In.One!

  2. My friend the political science prof recommended this site, and I refer to it often because they use local polling over “national” polling. It substantiates Gorn’s post completely.

    You can click on any state to see charting; there are also selections for Congressional race trends on other pages.

  3. Those bastards. Amazing how none of these liars feel any loyalty to the country and its citizens. Isn’t the truth what’s required to make informed decisions. This deceptive polling date is what gives the irrational right the belief that their opinions are the norm.

  4. Surprised, scienceguy? Not hardly. We all assume this kind of gaming goes on in the corporate media, but it isn’t always so easy to prove it. Since these polls are publicly available and collected in an easily accessible place like RealClearPolitics.com, it makes it easier to expose the kind of hacks that are masquerading as journalists these days.

  5. Agreed. Very good piece Gorn. My thought on polling is that these are useless until after the conventions. That said, it’s important to stay on top of these news organizations who are doing this cherry picking.

    If it’s okay with you, I might cannibalize most of this for use over at The Left Anchor (with crediting and links back to TheZoo, of course).

  6. If you combine this poll “reporting” with the purge of voters lists – noone will be very much surprised, if Obama doesn’t win after all.

    Ok, sorry I am not really into conspiracies 😉

  7. Nothing to do with politics, but positive proof of CNN’s whoring tendencies, is the current coverage of an earthquake in southern California. There was a moderate earthquake near Los Angeles around noon today. It is a pretty minor event – no injuries, very little damage, just kind of a distant 5 second shake. But, lordy, CNN is treating it like the Armageddon with simultaneous and continuous coverage on their four internet channels as well as on TV and web site. Their web site led with a picture that looked like wrath of god – a darkened LA under billowing clouds from heaven – probably a stock photo meant to emphasize smog.

    I listened to an interview they did of a woman in San Diego, further from the epicenter than I am. The interviewer basically led her to make the situation sound much harsher than it really is. For me, it was 4-5 seconds of minor shimmy not much different from a good release of gas. I’m sure it was more significant at Chino Hills, but come on – nothing to justify this over-the-top national coverage.

    CNN has no shame. No right wing conspiracy, just sensationalist whores.

  8. From a somewhat devious strategic point of view, I think we should let CNN do whatever silliness it wants until after McSame actually gets nominated by the Rs. If the polls were accurately reported, someone might wise up, bang the gong, and yank the clown off the stage. Once he is the nominee, then I think it is important to publicize the polls, thinking back to how the exit polls and the voter results in certain places varied so greatly. We may need it as evidence against Diebold.

  9. One reader of this post who communicated privately has pointed out an area of potential confusion in the post. The post examines the way CNN uses polling data in order to construct sensationalist stories and headlines, and it does so by comparing CNN’s reported polling data against the broader scope of available polling data. CNN identifies the polling data on a polling map, to which it assigns colors of red or blue. However, CNN also has a separate electoral map which uses different coloration.

    In my analysis of poll selection, I don’t even look at CNN’s electoral map at all. Rather, I refer to “CNN’s National Polling Map”. This map is found here:

    http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/map/polling/

    The reason I am referring to that map is that it is interactive and provides the underlying polling they are using for their coloration choice – this happens to be the same polling data they use in their articles. By contrast, the “CNN Electoral Map” is a mere static image that has no explanation for the coloration and does not relate to the content of their articles and headlines. The only place in my post where I refer to the CNN Electoral Map is in looking at the way they add up electoral votes, not in their reporting of polling data.

    In retrospect, I can understand the confusion, because the map I inserted into the article, merely as a decorative item, was the CNN Electoral Map (actually, a thumbnail of that map found on their Election Center home page) – I put it in simply because it is a static JPEG image, so easily copied and pasted. It hadn’t occurred to me that they were using different coloration that could confuse the reader.

    On the polling map, CNN paints a state either red or blue based on one CNN-selected poll for that state (or white, if there is “no polling data” that CNN wishes to identify); by contrast, on their electoral map, there are different shades of red and blue, and also a “toss-up” color. For example, on the polling map, CNN currently identifies Nevada as red based on one poll. On their electoral map, they identify it as yellow (toss-up). The RCP broader collection of polls suggest that state is leaning toward Obama. It’s a similar situation for all the other states that I mentioned. For example, the CNN polling map currently shows Virginia as white (no polling available), while their electoral map shows Virginia as yellow (tossup), and RCP shows the state leaning Obama on the basis of the average of the three most recent polls conducted between late June and late July.

    Now that it has been pointed out that the inserted graphic may be confusing, I’ve replaced that map with RCP’s electoral map, and provided a link to CNN’s polling map. I should also point out, however, that these maps can fluctuate from day to day. Already, CNN is showing some states as having no available polling data, which were painted one color or the other on the day I wrote the post. Tomorrow or next week, the coloration may be very different from the way it was two days ago when the post was written.

    However, although the maps used by CNN and RCP may change from day to day, the underlying historical data does not change, nor does the history of articles written by CNN. RCP keeps an ongoing log of all the polls, both nationally and state-by-state. If you want to know if an article written by CNN on March 15 was a fair reflection of polling data available to their journalists at that time, all you need to do is to look at the historical log at RCP (or similar source) to see what polling was available at the time they wrote the article. If they ignored data that was available to them, then either they are incompetent, or they believe the data is was not credible, or they are writing in accordance with some bias or pre-ordained intent. Only they know for sure why they choose to ignore publicly available data while constructing their articles and headlines.

    In short, the coloration of various maps on a particular day does not change the substance of the post’s argument even one bit. The facts that the post identifies, and the points that the post raises, are that CNN appears to deliberately cherry-pick polling data and builds feature articles and headlines around that cherry-picked data.

    The key information here is the polling data and how it compares and contrasts to CNN’s articles and headlines, not a particular dynamic map color scheme.

    I thank the reader for identifying this point of confusion and hope my explanation and clarification is helpful.

  10. Nice post gorn. I also follow the polls closely, but ignore the shit out of CanWeMake News Noisy…
    The site gummitch posted is very helpful, but they tend to take just the most recent polls into account.
    RCP is one of the best sites around.

  11. Thanks for the post, gorn.
    I’ve added all the sites mentioned to my links.

    Totally off topic:

    Has anyone seen the T. Boone Pickens commercial? He’s a big oil guy who’s saying ‘this is it, we gotta stop our dependence on oil’?
    What do you think of his plan?

  12. Trueblue – I’ve visited T. Boone Pickens website and I’m not sure if I trust him. He was a Bush supporter and now he is looking for investors to help him build a windmill farm. If I send any investment money to windmill farms, it will be to the Lakotah Nation.

    Has Pickens suddenly converted because he cares or is he just looking to make more money?

  13. I haven’t studied Picken’s plan in detail, but why does it ignore solar?

    Solar is the ultimate solution for the following reasons:

    – it is 100% renewable for the next 5 billion years
    – it is the source of all other forms of energy (coal, natural gas, biofuels, oil, etc., are all storage media for energy that came from the sun), and therefore it is most efficient to capture it directly
    – it is essentially equally accessible to every part of the planet, meaning it cannot be controlled by a cartel or hijacked by an ideology
    – it is accessible at both the collective and individual level
    – it cannot be wasted; NOT using it is a form of waste
    – Nature figured out how to efficiently capture the Sun’s energy, mix it with water and carbon dioxide, store it efficiently for future use, and generate only oxygen as a waste product. It’s called photosynthesis.

  14. Like Cats, I’m a cynic and suspect ol’ T. Boone owns a vast swath of Texas wasteland and he sees big dollars in putting up a wind farm, perhaps assisted with corporate welfare.

    Even so, I’d welcome all forms of alternative energy.

    If I were Obama, I’d tie in some concessions on offshore drilling to a true and serious commitment to building sustainable, renewable, clean energy (see my comment above). Make some short-term concessions in order to make real progress on the big picture. If Boone’s farm is part of the plan, that’s fine.

    Boone’s Farm. Hmmmm.

  15. i really think you have to dismiss most polls as erroneous simply due to the fact most young people (voters) in this country have cell phones. you can call all day long and miss a very vital piece of the puzzle.

    just my 2 cents………

    fb

  16. From what I have read, T. Boone’s part 2 of his plan is all about natural gas – something he is heavily invested in.

    Thus far, it has been roundly trounced just for that.

  17. And fatherbob, I think that is a big one. Many people solely have cell phones – with no land lines at all and that is an absolutely enormous population of voters – especially during this election cycle.

    But would it matter?

    When the pundits pick the poll results they want (and I certainly wouldn’t put it past them to make them up should they not materialize as they desire), it’s nothing short of Enron accounting.

    Play with the numbers until they sound good then get someone else to bless them.

    And everyone loses.

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