The New York Times and their comrades-in-harm, CBS, last week declared Barack Obama the winner of the 2008 presidential election.
Well, okay, not officially.
But in the hours leading up to the crucial, final presidential debate, they released a poll purporting that Obama had a 14-point lead over John McCain, a margin so wide that it was sure to encourage Democrats and demoralize Republicans. The CBS/NYT poll was such an outlier -- other polls have averaged margins of 4-5% -- that, intentionally or not, it was likely to create a bandwagon effect for their preferred candidate. In case you doubt the impact that a media poll can have, consider this from an independent study following the 2004 presidential election:
"During presidential elections, poll results frequently are presented in the news. Reporters use these polls to tell the public what it thinks about the presidential candidates. We argue that polling results tell the public what it should think about the presidential candidates as well."
- Bruce W. Hardy and Kathleen Hall Jamieson
In their 2005 article, Hardy and Jamieson detail how the Kerry campaign was able to change the public perception of President Bush by getting the Los Angeles Times to include a question in one of its, supposedly, independent polls. That query reframed Bush's steady leadership, a plus, as stubborness, a negative.
The Kerry campaign managed to get widespread coverage of that question's results from its friends in the media. According to the study, "By imposing the negative cultural meaning of stubborn on positive traits such as 'strong leader,' the Kerry camp was successful at creating not only a new character trait to assess George W. Bush but also a reassessment of Bush's trump positive trait."
The authors concluded, "media coverage of the Los Angeles Times poll was the causal agent of the increase in the rating of Bush as stubborn."
One question in a single poll, about something so seemingly inconsequential as a character trait, caused the public to change its opinion of a President who had been in office for almost four years.
Polls are manipulated in a number of ways, including question wording, the order in which questions are asked, and how respondents are chosen. Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D, points out in an article at www.stats.org:
"One of the big issues is who is sampled. Gallup is currently listing two polls, one 'traditional' poll of likely voters, which consists of those respondents who have previously voted, and an 'expanded' likely voter pool, consisting of respondents who are likely to vote but have not necessarily voted in a prior election. One could argue that those who didn't vote in the last election are unlikely to be voters this time around -- but there have been record numbers of new voters registering, and substantial evidence that young people are enthusiastic about voting in this election. Perhaps their voices should count in the polls (in both cases, Gallup reports an Obama lead -- but the amount of the lead differs significantly)."
Pollsters acknowledge that they are oversampling among three demographics that the Obama campaign is targeting: young people, minorities and Democrats. It's entirely possible that there will be high turnout among those groups, despite traditionally low turnout among the former two, but it's also possible -- maybe even likely -- that this higher turnout could be offset by the Bradley effect.
According to Goldin, "there is a question of whether poll respondents are honestly reporting their voter intention. Much attention has been given to the question of the Bradley effect -- will likely voters merely say they plan to vote for Obama, but once at the polls actually cast their vote for McCain?"
If not, and Obama ends up with the CBS/NYT poll's 14-point lead -- or another wide margin, will it be because the polls were accurate? Or will it be because--as Hardy and Jamieson concluded in their study - -the polls told voters what they should think?
William Tate is an award-winning journalist and author.