The Media and the Horse Race

One poll does not a narrative make.

Ever since Sam Wang pointed out that presidential polling is the most inaccurate from May – July, I’ve been trying to avoid paying any attention to them. I’ve never hung my hat on individual polls, but trends over time combined with polling aggregates can provide us with information that is both interesting and useful. It’s just that, until we get through the conventions, an awful lot of people simply aren’t paying that much attention. So none of this is as important as it will be in a few weeks.

But today something happened with polling that tells us more about the media than it does about the candidates. The day began with screaming headlines like this one from Politico: “Swing-state stunner: Trump has edge in key states.” Nice alliteration, huh? What we have is a “swing-state stunner” from Quinnipiac showing that Trump is leading Clinton in Florida and Pennsylvania, while they’re tied in Ohio. What is most stunning to the authors is that “in Pennsylvania — which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1988 — Trump leads, 43 percent to 41 percent.” Notice that they didn’t say that Trump is leading Clinton in this particular poll. They simply say, “Trump leads…” That was posted at 6:00 am (EDT).

Seven and a half hours later, Politico reports swing-state polling that doesn’t appear to be “stunning.” An NBC/WSJ/Marist poll has Clinton leading Trump in Pennsylvania by 9 points. They also show her leading Trump by 2 points in Iowa and tied in Ohio. Do you really think that the voters of Pennsylvania swung 11 points in Clinton’s favor over 7 1/2 hours? Nah, didn’t happen. That’s why you don’t write headlines that say “Trump has edge in key states” based on the results of one poll.

But what’s even more ridiculous is that the authors of this second piece feel the need to point out that “The polls contain some worrying signs for Clinton” – but not for Trump, who is either losing or tied in these “important swing states.” Such is the advantage of running as the underdog: our media that craves a close horse race will forever pump your “stunning” positives and completely ignore the negatives.

Just in case you’d like to know where swing-state polling actually stands in this week before we head into the conventions, here’s what Real Clear Politics has on that:

Pennsylvania: Clinton +3.2
Florida: Trump +0.2
Ohio: Clinton +1.3
Colorado: Clinton +7.0
Iowa: Clinton +4.3
Virginia: Clinton +4.0
North Carolina: Clinton +0.7
Georgia: Trump +4.2
New Hampshire: Clinton +2.7

According to those, other than Florida (which is virtually tied) the only swing-state where Trump is leading – Georgia – is one that is not usually included on the list. And if these averages hold up over time, Colorado will be taken off the list and placed firmly with the blue states.

Contrary to the hyped-up headlines today, that is the state of the presidential race right now.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.