Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Whom the Poll Tolls

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For Whom the Poll Tolls

Article excerpt

Did you notice how many commentators, after each of the debates, would end an evaluation of what they had just seen with a caveat like this: "But we will have to wait a few days until the polls determine how the debate actually affected the race between Bush and Gore."

I've never known a presidential campaign when the polls were as much a part of the race itself - when they have been so clearly influential in shaping the media coverage and thus the public perception of what is going on.

Early on, well before the conventions when the polls were finding George W. Bush some 20 points ahead of Al Gore, the stories from the media weighed heavily in favor of Mr. Bush merely by repeating again and again that Bush had an immense lead. There's nothing more favorable than stories that say a candidate just might be unbeatable because he is so far ahead.

This all changed at the Democratic convention. The polls found a Gore upsurge and then a Gore lead. And the press followed with what could only be called "Gore stories" since it depicted day after day the vice president's climb in overtaking Bush and how he did it.

And now Bush is getting the better of the coverage as the polls have shown him drawing up even with Mr. Gore and then going ahead.

Oh, certainly, the media were doing their own research, talking to a lot of people, gaining their own slant on things - or at least trying to do so.

But the media tend merely to corroborate what they are learning from the polls. Indeed, it is often their own pollsters, like those used by The New York Times and The Washington Post, that reporters will rely on as their indicators of how the race is going.

Reporters know their own weakness. They know they have to base their stories on relatively few interviews. So they naturally find a poll (like a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, which had been based on some 1,500 interviews) quite persuasive as they put together their next stories on who is ahead.

Most reporters that I know are very diligent and do a lot of digging. And the best of them have this capability of picking up the "feel" of voter intentions. But I can understand why reporters will turn to the polls for guidance, particularly those they believe to be reliable, produced by experienced and highly regarded pollsters. …

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