(original version published on temporary site; comment thread)
Today, the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza has moved Ohio from “lean Obama” to “tossup.” Yet the current margin in Ohio is Obama +3.0+/-0.5% (n=14 polls, Oct. 13-Nov. 1) and probably insuperable. What could be Cillizza’s reason?
He writes: “…the absolute necessity for Romney to win the state if he wants to be president – leads us to move it back to the ‘tossup’ category.” Now here is some problematic reasoning. Romney needs Ohio, so therefore it’s a toss-up. Ah yes, the “let’s not bicker about who killed who” argument.
Cillizza is hardly alone. A few days ago, Wolf Blitzer at CNN cited a single Ohio poll, done by his own organization, showing Obama up by 4%. He then proceeded to call this a “tie,” revealing an amazing inability to interpret a simple number. Compounding this is the fact that dozens of polls have been conducted in Ohio. The odds of an Obama lead are extremely high. So why do Cillizza and Blitzer persist?
The news media have an incentive to fuzz up the picture: ratings and profit. A message that the cake is fully baked does not automatically bring back the viewers. Without the artificial suspense, Cillizza and Blitzer are put in a position of having to say something substantive or interesting that gets beyond a horserace number. Think how much work that would be.
The same problem extends to the aggregation of polling data, which many sites do (FiveThirtyEight, Oct. 31). But think of all the headlines you have seen about “Romney ahead nationally,” “Obama pulls ahead in Wisconsin,” “it’s a dead heat,” and other permutations. Each of these headlines was based on a single poll. But aggregation would lead to fewer news stories – and less of the breathless horserace coverage we are used to.
When I started doing the Meta-Analysis of State Polls in 2004, I thought it would be a useful tool to get rid of media noise about individual polls. If we had a sharper picture of the race from day to day, a “polling thermometer,” would tell a simpler story of the race that looks like this.
This story in hand could provide a common set of facts. For example, the events that really moved the race (or appear to have) are the ones indicated by arrows. Space would be opened up for discussion of what really mattered in the campaign – or more importantly, a discussion of actual policies, not just horserace. To my disappointment, this has not happened. Maybe it just takes time. Or perhaps polling nerds need to get a few more races right. Let’s see if we move the ball forward for Team Geek on Tuesday.