Opinion Polls or Propaganda?

Summer is upon us, with three big events waiting to make news headlines. Two political conventions and the Rio Olympics. Both presumptive presidential nominees, especially Donald Trump, will be facing opposition at their respective nominating conventions. Trump from his own party and Clinton from Bernie Sanders supporters. The Olympics has dirty water and the Zika virus to contend with.

The media is fully engaged in the presidential campaign, already picking sides and actively or passively campaigning for their favorite candidates. Polling of the media would likely reveal majority support for Mrs. Clinton. In fact, “Self-proclaimed Democratic journalists outnumber Republicans by 4-to-1” according to an Indiana University study. Big deal if a newspaper writer in Paducah, Kentucky or Greeley, Colorado is a Democrat. Their media reach doesn’t extend beyond their small cities.

Instead it’s the Washington, DC journalists with the most influence. Those on the evening news, the Sunday talk shows, and those reporting or commenting on the 24-7 cable news networks. The above-mentioned study found that, “More than 90 percent of D.C. journalists vote Democratic, with an even higher number giving to Democrats or liberal-leaning political action committees.” Is it any wonder that media is referred to as ‘Democrat operatives with bylines”?

What does this have to do with opinion polls?

An opinion poll is a survey of public opinion from a particular sample, designed to represent the opinion of a larger population group. The key word here is ‘sample’. Suppose you want to conduct a survey on gun rights. How might the results differ if you sample attendees at a Wyoming gun show versus a meeting of the Ithaca Code Pink chapter?

Presidential polls are no different. The sample determines the poll results. Ask a group of Americans who they prefer for president in November. Who exactly is being asked? Obviously the results would be quite different if the survey was conducted at the gun show or the Code Pink meeting. The best way to have a ‘balanced sample’ would be by party affiliation, Republican or Democrat.

ABC News gleefully proclaimed the results of their latest presidential poll with a headline, “Clinton Opens 12-Point Lead on Trump.” For those who even pay attention to the news, most scan the headlines in their social media newsfeeds or on aggregated news sites. The headline says it all. Hillary is measuring the drapes for the oval office and Donald is about to be fired from his own one-year reality show.

Is this a fair assessment of the poll? Or is ABC News, one of many media organizations in the NY-DC power corridor, reflecting the 90-plus percent Democrat affiliation and support of its reporters? Let’s look closer at the poll.

The press release for the actual poll results had a similar headline, “Clinton Surges on Trump Missteps.” All of these surveys have methodology as to who they survey and how they decide who to call. I’ll leave those discussions to the statisticians. Instead look at party affiliation of those surveyed.

In the ABC News survey, Democrats accounted for 36 percent of those surveyed, Republicans 24 percent, and the remainder independents. That’s a difference of 12 percent. Remember the headline, “Clinton Opens 12-Point Lead on Trump”? 12-point lead and 12-point difference in party affiliation of those surveyed. Perhaps this is a dead heat rather than a “Clinton surge.”

Independents, representing the largest block based on party affiliation, or 40 percent of those surveyed, preferred Trump over Clinton by two points, 45-43. I’m no statistician, but simple arithmetic gives Trump the overall edge in this survey if party affiliation is equalized.

This isn’t the only poll which oversamples Democrats. A recent Reuters poll claimed Hillary leads Donald 47 to 33 percent. But their sample was 52 percent Democrat and 35 percent Republican, erasing the Clinton lead and in fact giving a slight edge to Trump.

There are further complexities that can’t be reconciled by a survey. RedState, part of the #NeverTrump franchise, believes Trump received only 3 million Republican votes in the primaries with the remaining 12 million being Democrat votes. A type of ‘operation chaos’ with the Democrats sabotaging the GOP primaries and minimal actual support for Trump. Seems highly unlikely that 12 million Democrat voters were given marching orders to switch party affiliation and vote for Trump without someone finding out about such an operation via a leaked email or through social media postings. But not a surprising conclusion from the #NeverTrumpers.

Or perhaps a different explanation. Another survey found, “About 20 percent of likely Democratic voters say they would buck the party and vote for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in a general election.” Meaning that RedState’s analysis may be partially correct, except for the motivation of the crossover voters. Maybe they actually support Trump over Clinton rather than being part of an ‘operation chaos’. On the other hand, there are #NeverTrump Republicans like George Will or Brent Scowcroft, leaving the Republican party, crossing over the other way and potentially voting for Hillary Clinton.

How relevant is party affiliation this election? I suspect less so than usual. This cycle it’s the establishment pitted against the anti-establishment, the latter being Trump and Sanders. Much like the recent Brexit vote, the divisions are less along political party lines than a vote against the unlimited immigration, crony EU establishment.

Still opinion polls are a staple of a presidential election news cycle despite their limited predictive value this early in the campaign season. In June 2000, Bush led Gore 50-38 and the election was a virtual tie. In June 2008, Obama and McCain were tied. In June 1992, Bush led Clinton 33-27.

Polls make news. But should pollsters be making the news or simply performing the poll? Should the media report the polls or spin the results toward reflecting their political biases?

The Brexit polls predicted that ‘remain’ would win by 8 percent when in reality ‘leave’ won by 4 percent, a 12 percentage point error. This Week correctly noted in their post Brexit headline, “Pollsters couldn't resist the temptation to put their thumb on the scales.”

Which is exactly what Big Media is doing on this side of the pond in their falsely reported presidential polls. At which point the polls are no longer objective but instead propaganda serving a political agenda.

Brian C Joondeph, MD, MPS, a Denver based retina surgeon, radio personality, and writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter