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Perverse media incentive watch: Chris Cillizza

November 2nd, 2012, 1:00am by Sam Wang

(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.

Tags: 2012 Election · President

6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jan Tore Hall

    Perhaps a simplistic tangential thought, but one suggested by the overlaps of political and various types of sports journalism — the Boston Red Sox game broadcasts recently had, for a while at least, a gimmick from Bill James and the Sabremetrics crew, a thermometer graphic depicting the batter’s ‘temperature’, which supplemented batting average stats to give a better sense of how ‘hot’ the batter was. Can’t recall whether they stuck with it, and not sure it added very much more than having the announcers ruminate about it. I mention the Red Sox thing only in case the particular presentation model might have cross-application, directly or as suggestion.

  • Mitch

    “Maybe it just takes time. Or perhaps polling nerds need to get a few more races right.”

    I’m afraid it’s a bigger problem than that.

    Like global warming being real, or stimulus money helping, Republicans simply cannot deal with facts they don’t like.

    They are very convinced that they are winners and Democrats are losers. Anything insinuating that Republicans are hugely likely to lose strikes them as false. They *know* it’s false. Because they *know* they’re winners.

    And they are the group more likely to act mean and yell. So if you’re presenting “facts” that they don’t like, they will get very upset, and act very mean to you.

    And nerds don’t know how to react to bullies. Constitutionally they don’t. You think presenting facts will persuade them. But no, they are bullies, and you are a nerd.

    They have bullied Wolf Blitzer and CNN into calling Ohio a tossup. They have bullied the national conversation into considering it a tossup.

    Of course it’s not, and Obama will easily win.

    And then they will come up with other insane theories that don’t make any sense. And nerds pointing out that their theories don’t make any sense won’t convince them.

    They are bullies and you’re a nerd.

  • J. Cosgrove

    It strikes me as very odd that anyone who is not quite rich would even consider voting for Mr. Romney! He has shown nothing but contempt for those of us on the lower end of the monetary spectrum. How on earth are his numbers anywhere close to the President’s?

  • Stacey


    I accept your conclusions regarding the motives and biases behind the media’s interpretation. My question as it relates to statistics is, is there a way to calculate how the media’s interpretation of polls actually influences voters-how they vote, and voter turnout? Being a critical thinker, but NOT a statistician by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve often wondered about this, and have been frustrated by the lack of information available. Thanks!

  • (Capt) Mike Smith, CEO

    It seems blatently obvious to anyone abroad (and many in the UK such as myself) that President Obama having been blocked from keeping good faith and initial promises by both sides of both houses and militaristic interests, at least if re-elected there is half a chance for sanity and reason, but under the Republicans arrogant and naive attitude to global policies (and the present encumbent’s is not good) we all go to hell in a basket, brought about by stupidity and crass naivity. Listen to those presidential wanna be’s whose joint perhaps wiser views have been submerged, yet are still fighting to the wire as ‘other runners’. We seem to hear more about them here than you guys do in the disunited so called democracy of the USA which has sadly become virtually a police state, absolutely no longer the ‘land of the free’!

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