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Too many stories and useless speculation about political polls

Posted by Mark Leccese October 22, 2012 08:04 AM

All models are wrong, but some are useful.
— George E.P. Box, past president of the American Statistical Association

As I write this, a search of my Twitter timeline for “poll” turns up seven tweets about six different polls, including a teaser tweet from CNN for a poll about to be released — in just the past hour.

The media’s and the political blogs’ reporting of polls — and speculation about what they mean — has been more pervasive and inescapable this year than in an election I’ve ever seen, even though no one knows what these polls mean for the election.

On Friday afternoon, the “Latest Election Polls” page on the website RealClear Politics had four new national general election polls posted. Here are the results of those polls:

  • Obama +3

  • Obama +2

  • Tie

  • Romney +6

Confused? The CBS News website assumes you are, and published a piece Friday headlined “Confused by all the polls? Pollsters explain the variation.” It doesn’t help.

Not only are we being showered with words and more words (and charts that may or may not be meaningful) about each and every poll that’s released, we’re presented with a daily parade of stories, blog post and tweets about the averages of a bunch of polls and statistical models (whose methodology is not made clear) built from polls and other factors: RealClear Politics Poll Averages, the CNN Poll of Polls, HuffPost Pollster, the Talking Points Memo Poll Tracker, and the most influential of them all, the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog.

This can lead to some silly journalism. The website Business Insider ran a story on Friday about the RealClear Politics Poll Averages showing Obama up by 0.1 percent with the headline “WAIT! Obama Has Re-Taken The Lead In An Average Of National Polls.”


Howie Carr says Mitt Romney is a phony

Posted by Mark Leccese October 16, 2012 11:27 AM

“Howie on Warren’s House of Lies” shouted the front page on Sunday’s Boston Herald, and “house of lies” did duty as a heavy-handed pun: Howie Carr’s column featured a comparison (and photos) of Warren’s and Republican Senator Scott Brown’s houses.

He opens the column by writing that Warren “is now portraying herself as the tribune of the middle class,” and, in the next paragraph, that she “is not middle class. She is a snob’s snob, a 1-percenter from way back. There is only one Scrooge McDuck-like plutocrat in this fight, and it’s not Scott Brown.”

He ends the column by asking: “Does Massachusetts really need a senator who’s even phonier than John Kerry?”

Mocking Warren for being a “phony” because she puts herself forward as “a tribune for the middle class” is a sophisticated metaphor: The Free Online Dictionary defines “tribune” as “an officer of ancient Rome elected by the plebeians to protect their rights from arbitrary acts of the patrician magistrates.”

Carr is a smart man (he got his education at the boarding school Deerfield Academy and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was Phi Beta Kappa) and, in “tribune,” Carr found the perfect word for his argument against Warren.

I follow his logic: If you’re rich, you can’t be a tribune for the middle class, and if you say you are, you’re a phony.

Follow his logic a little further, and what Carr is asserting is that all of the following very wealthy people are phonies: Mitt Romney, Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush, Al Gore, George H.W. Bush, Keith Olbermann, and Rush Limbaugh.


Watching the post-debate TV analysts

Posted by Mark Leccese October 4, 2012 12:08 AM

I spent an hour after last night’s debate flipping through the news networks for the part of a presidential debate that matters most: what the post-debate analysts said.

It took just about that long for the conventional wisdom — that Romney won big — to develop. Here’s how it happened.

10:34 CNN — Pretty much as soon as the candidate handshakes and family cheek kisses are over, Wolf Blitzer says Romney “held his own” and wonders why Obama never attacked Romney.

He throws it to Candy Crowley, who says: “Mitt Romney will be very pleased with this night. If you look at the Twitterverse, you’ll see a lot of Democrats who think the president seemed a little listless here.”

10:34 FoxNews — Megyn Kelly: “It was an interesting dynamic to see Mitt Romney looking mostly over at President Obama when he was making his points and President Obama choosing to look over at Jim Lehrer or to look down.”

10:37 CBS — Correspondent Nancy Cordes: “Romney very energetic, probably more energetic than the president, and, most tellingly, I haven’t got a single email from the Obama campaign yet contending that the president was the winner tonight.”

The conventional wisdom is beginning to form. Obama did poorly on style.


About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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