Surveying the Spin: Interpretation of the 1996 Presidential Polls
Karen Lane DeRosa
Transportation Improvement District, Ohio, and Miami University of Ohio
John C. Tedesco
University of Oklahoma
Recent presidential campaigns have occurred in a time of low political activism, limited public service, and weak civic faith in the federal government. At the same time, however, the measurement of public opinion became pervasive in news reporting of presidential candidates and their campaigns. Although the public opinion poll is an established ritual in the United States, its influence on politics and news analyses was unprecedented in the 1992 and 1996 campaigns. In 1996, Cable News Network (CNN) alone conducted more than 200 polls.
Although the polls forecasted an anticlimactic and (by polling standards) uninteresting presidential race, that did not curtail the number of polls conducted. And, perhaps to justify expensive ongoing polling operations, unsurprising "horse race" presidential poll results were included in numerous stories that were unrelated to the polls themselves. As news coverage of the horse race aspect of presidential campaigning steadily increases, voter turnout continues to steadily decrease. In fact, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan Washington, DC group, the 1996 presidential election resulted in the lowest voter turnout since 1924 ( Skiba, 1996).
The role of the media in this voting downturn is again under scrutiny, with polling as a central concern. In debating the value of polling, the argument rarely goes beyond examining the reduction of U.S. public opinion to a horse race. Critics argue that, in the guise of civic journalism, media polling creates news events on which to report and respond. The response--