Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Olbermann Wonders If Kerry Should Panic, But Maybe It's His Research Staff That Should Worry

Last night's "Countdown" on MSNBC offered a stunning portrait of what's wrong with the media.

Host Keith Olbermann, amid the smirks and jovialities, tried to offer a serious discussion of recent presidential poll data. But alas, Keith (or his research staff) didn't do much homework, and in the quest to have a "new angle," Olbermann misled his viewers.

A little background: There are lots of polls available for any newsperson or pundit. Consider that there are presidential polls that include Nader, and ones that don't. There are polls of adults, of registered voters and of likely voters. There are polls conducted by nonpartisan organizations, and ones conducted by Republican and Democratic pollsters.

To smush all those polls together is kind of silly. What a lot of fair-minded people have done, as a result, is two-fold:

1) Consider only polls comparing Bush and Kerry, because Nader is not on enough state ballots to merit national consideration.
2) Consider only polls of likely voters -- a more accurate measure than registered voters (who may not vote) or adults (who may not be registered). And only consider polls from nonpartisan organizations.

Let's turn back to Keith, as he shows a complete lack of understanding of the polling world:

OLBERMANN: Four new polls out. One almost wishes they had followed Roper, Crossly and Gallup, and just stopped. “TIME” magazine, the president enjoys an 11 point lead, rendering the statistical margin of error of 3 percent moot. Not in the “Newsweek” poll. The margin is 6 points, error is 4. The latest AP poll continues the trend with the president at 51/46, but half of that can be counterbalanced by a margin of error of 2.5. Finally, the presidents message seeming to play in the heartland, leading Zogby poll of rural voters by 15 percent. The margin of error there, 3.1.

So let's look at the smush:

-- The TIME poll actually was taken from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, on the heels of the Republican National Convention. While it is among likely voters, it is not the most recent. In fact, there are five other national polls of likely voters that have been taken since the Time poll wac conducted.

-- The most recent Newsweek poll, which samples registered voters, actually shows Bush up by 5 in a two-person race. Olbermann was citing the Bush and Kerry numbers in a three-way race.

-- The AP poll, from last weekend, was among likely voters, but the 51-46 spread was in fact the Bush and Kerry numbers if Nader was included.

-- The fourth poll is not a national poll, but rather a poll of rural voters only.

So, Olbermann tried to smush together polls of likely and registered voters, and ones that included Nader and ones that didn't. And he didn't even use the four most recent polls.

What happens when you look at the four most recent polls of likely voters, only comparing Bush and Kerry? Why, the race appears to be a dead heat:

Rassmussen (9/11-9/13): Bush 47, Kerry 47.
IBD/Christian Science Monitor (9/7-9/13): Bush 47, Kerry 47.
Zogby (9/8-9/9): Bush 47, Kerry 45.
Fox/Opinion Dynamics (9/7-9/8): Bush 47, Kerry 45.

So, four polls, which average out to a 1% lead for Bush -- and given the margin of error, that's a statistical dead heat.

But look at it another way. If you look at the most recent polls of likely voters state-by-state, you'll never guess what the electoral college vote would be:

Bush 233, Kerry 233, too close to call (or conflicting recent poll results) 72.


But all those polls numbers -- all those most recent, apples-to-apples polls -- weren't going to get in the way of Olbermann's "story" last night.

Interviewing Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, Olbermann uncorked this gem:

OLBERMANN: In the old days, back to the general picture, when conventions actually chose the candidates, and this week after Labor Day would have been considered week two, maybe week three of the campaign. If somebody said to me, an intelligent man said to me today, if John Kerry doesn‘t turn this around right now, he is Michael Dukakis. Is it panic time yet in the Kerry camp? Do they think it‘s panic time?

Now, Page knows why she's been invited to be on the show. Heck, every journalist knows how this works. You call a source, explain the story you're doing, and ask if they agree and are willing to go on the record.

Given that premise, is it any surprise that Page responded to Olbermann's question with standard pundit spew:

PAGE: Yes. I think there‘s a lot of concern in the Kerry camp. But it is certainly not—the election is certainly over. At this point, Gore was ahead of George Bush in 2000. And Bush, of course, now in the White House. So there‘s—it‘s not an insurmountable lead.

But the momentum is not in John Kerry‘s direction. He has had a very tough August. With the swift boat veterans damaged his reputation. The Republican convention got people focused very much on the issue of terrorism. That‘s the issue on which is President Bush has his greatest advantage.

Not in his direction? But we know that the TIME poll, taken on the heels of the Republican National convention, showed a double-digit lead for Bush. And if anyone had done their homework, they would have realized that the polls from this week show that the race is virtually a dead heat.

Yes, Kerry had a bad August. But look at the calendar, Keith and Susan. The interview you are conducting occurred on Sept. 13. A world of events -- deaths in Iraq, Cheney's blunder about making the "wrong choice" on election day, the assault weapons ban ending -- all have come and gone since the Republican convention ended. And as anyone covering national politics knows, voters have short-term memories!

Olbermann later summed up the situation perfectly:

OLBERMANN: Seven weeks from tonight, numbers like that could encourage both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry to sleep late on election morning. The only people assuming (the poll numbers) will stay like that are some of us in the media. The same ones who, if the margins next week are half of these, will say there‘s been a stunning rehearsal in the polls.

How much do you want to bet that Olbermann comes back with another story next week showing a resurgent Kerry?

I only hope he does his homework first.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today's Harris poll as quoted in the WSJ reveals Kerry to have a 1% point lead over Bush: 47% to 46%.
Here's a few simple questions that the Kerry campaign should direct at Bush supporters or undecided voters.

"What has the Bush Administration done to help you these last four years?" Or "How has the Iraq War made the world safer from terrorism?"
These questions alone force people to seriously reexamine their position on Bush.

9:43 AM  

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