Expert Commentary

Election Beat 2020: The other problem with journalists’ use of polls

As in their coverage of the 1948 presidential election, journalists still tend to build their narratives and candidate images around poll results.

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Election buffs know that Harry Truman charged from behind in 1948 to edge out Thomas Dewey on the strength of his “give-‘em-hell” style and a barnstorming whistle-stop campaign that crisscrossed America.

Truman’s closing rush makes a nice story, but it was not the story that journalists told during the 1948 U.S. presidential campaign. They portrayed Truman as a weak candidate whose whistle-stop campaign was a sign of desperation. In its final issue before the election, Newsweek described Truman as “a woefully weak little man, a nice enough fellow but wholly inept.” In a front-page story the day before the election, The New York Times declared: “The rosy prospect of victory for the Truman ticket on election day finds no credence outside Mr. Truman’s kitchen cabinet.” Time polled forty-seven journalists; all of them predicted a Truman defeat.

America’s journalists were suffering from a poll shortage. The final Gallup poll was released three weeks before the election and, like its earlier polls, showed Truman trailing badly. Expecting him to lose, reporters supplied Truman with an image fit for a loser. The Harry Truman that we know today—he of “give-‘em-hell” and whistle-stopping fame—became the press’s story after the votes were counted.

Much has been written about journalists’ insensitivity to the limits of polling, including their failure to adequately account for sample size, response rate, and margin of error. That problem remains, although it is now less prevalent. Yet, the other problem with polling persists. As in their coverage of the 1948 presidential election, journalists tend to build their narratives and candidate images around poll results.

Although election polls are snapshots of voter opinion, they paradoxically direct journalists’ attention toward the candidates rather than toward the voters. Research indicates that, as poll references increase in news stories, so also do references to the candidates’ strategies and style, a pattern that reflects journalists’ tendency to focus tightly on the candidates. Although voters’ political loyalties and opinions drive the vote, these influences are relatively stable and poorly suited to journalists’ need to say something new each day. What is new each day is what the candidates are saying, where they’re saying it, and how they’re reacting to the ups and downs of the campaign.

Reporters have leeway in making claims about why candidates succeed or fail. Polls give journalists a barometer on whether a candidate is doing well or poorly, but  the reasons are less clear, giving reporters leeway in constructing an explanation. When candidates gain ground, reporters can attribute it to favorable aspects of their personality or campaign style. When candidates start to slide, negative qualities can be singled out.

A reporter cannot routinely say that a candidate who is behind in the polls has deep personal appeal; to do so would require a complex explanation that might call into question the reporter’s objectivity. Similarly, reporters find it hard not to say something praiseworthy of a surging candidate. When George H.W. Bush languished in the polls during the 1988 campaign, reporters said it was because he seemed weak. Newsweek ran a Bush cover story entitled, “Fighting the Wimp Factor.” However, after Bush took the lead in polls during the Republican national convention, Newsweek declared that Bush had “banished . . . the wimp factor.”

Bush’s stage presence undoubtedly played some part in his surge in the polls during the 1988 GOP convention, but a more substantial explanation was available to journalists if they had taken the time to study the polls they were citing. The voters who were moving into Bush’s column were chiefly Republican-leaning voters who heretofore had not been closely attentive to the campaign. Bush was reaping what first-time presidential nominees always reap during a party convention—the support of their party’s less-involved identifiers.

The press’s portrayal of Bush was no different in kind than that of other recent nominees. In a study of media portrayals of eighteen major-party presidential nominees, I found that reporters’ characterizations of the candidates are governed chiefly by the candidates’ poll positions. I found the same pattern in my study of the 2016 Trump-Clinton race. Nominees who were momentarily on the upswing received coverage that was more favorable in its tone and imagery than nominees who were losing ground. Like Truman in 1948, the nominees were outfitted with images in keeping with their position in the race.

The 2020 campaign is no exception, When Joe Biden failed to win in the Iowa caucuses, his style was derided as “rambling,” his campaign as “muddled.” He was said to be old and in need of an “energy check.” His victory in South Carolina changed the story line. He was suddenly “emotive,” a candidate who had “found his voice.” Donald Trump’s portrayal in 2020 coverage has been less variable but that, too, is consistent with the findings of earlier research. Incumbents seeking reelection are draped in the image that journalists formed of them while in office. The glaring exception was George H.W. Bush who, after he fell behind in the polls in 1988, was derided as “flaccid and unimaginative.”

There are now so many election polls — more than one a day on average — that asking journalists to ignore the bulk of them would be a thankless task. But journalists could spend more time talking about what polls say about the voters and less time using them to talk about the candidates. It would be a step toward correcting an imbalance in election coverage. Research indicates that journalists are seven times more likely to say how campaign developments might affect the candidates than to say how they might affect the voters.

Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?

Further reading:

Jakob-Moritz Eberl, Markus Wagner, Hajo G. Boomgaarden, “Are Perceptions of Candidate Traits Shaped by the Media?” International Journal of Press/Politics (2016).

Kate Kenski, Bruce W. Hardy, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Thomas E. Patterson, “News Coverage of the 2016 General Election,” Shorenstein Center, December 7, 2016.

Thomas E. Patterson, Out of Order (New York: Knopf, 1993).


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