By Thomas Lang

If the 2004 presidential campaign coverage were a sick child, it would certainly be suffering from an unprecedented case of the national poll virus.

From the start of April through May 7, 15 separate organizations (usually a combination of a polling firm and media outlet) released at least 23 polls handicapping the 2004 presidential election. That stands at an average of one poll every 38.6 hours. (This number does not include the Rasmussen tracking poll. That poll, conducted by machines, is refreshed every day.)

Those worst-stricken by the virus, including Fox News/Opinion Dynamics and Gallup Poll, conducted three surveys in that time span, offering its followers a new outlook on the race an average of every 13 days.

To put it lightly, this feeding frenzy hardly goes unnoticed by the most cerebral of Washington insiders. The beltway was in a tizzy in mid-to-end April after three outlets released polls defying the conventional wisdom that expected Bush to suffer after a barrage of negative media attention born out of the 9/11 commission and continuing turbulence in Iraq. Bush, despite all predictions, led John Kerry in trial heats.

In reaction, on Monday April 24, The New York Times editorial page commissioned two highly-regarded Washington journalists, Josh Marshall and Ryan Lizza, to rationalize the puzzling poll numbers for its readership.

Ryan Lizza of The New Republic accurately captured the fury: “Polls are to Washington what box scores are to cities that have a baseball team: they are scrutinized obsessively by partisans. This week the news has been especially startling.”

Lizza suggested that perhaps, a full six months away from the election, that, “Democrats should pause before they give up — and Republicans shouldn’t celebrate quite yet.”

The Times’ op-ed page was not alone in its exaggerated response to the poll numbers. As Eric Alterman pointed out in a April 29 column, a headline in the Kansas City Star read “Bad News Just Rolls off Bush” and declared Bush a “president with a sheen of Ronald Reagan Teflon.” Fox New’s Brit Hume went even further, proclaiming Bush “on the rebound.”

All this sturm und drang was in response to three separate polls released by ABC News/Washington Post, USA Today/CNN/Gallup, and Investor’s Business Daily, which at most had Bush leading Kerry by four percent with a three percent margin of error.

Almost no one stopped to consider this; national polls have their limits in measuring likely election results.

Dick Bennett, president of the polling firm American Research Group, contends that national polls can give a sense of where the country stands on a particular election or issue, and Dan Payne, a Boston-based media consultant with Democratic ties, still believes that national polling results function as a “jet stream” that can pick up the country’s reaction to international or national events, such as an overseas terrorist bombing.

However, as Payne demonstrated in an April 24 column for the Boston Globe, relying on a national poll to size up the election is like relying on an average national temperature to get dressed every morning. “US mean for April is 67 degrees. But Thursday it was 80 degrees in Boston, 54 in Chicago, 43 in Denver. National numbers don’t show local conditions in swing states.”

Bennett, shares Payne’s outlook stating that “in a 50-state race” national polls “could be right on and they could be meaningless.” And he concedes that polling partnerships continue to find national polls attractive because they require less time to conduct than a state-by-state count.

Simply put, national polls do not account for the way we elect presidents — via the Electoral College. (If the president were chosen by a direct popular vote, then national polls would be ideal. But, of course, that’s not how it works.) Before 2000, the last candidate to claim the office without a majority of the popular vote was Grover Cleveland in 1888. Thus, according to Bennett, there existed an “iffy” assumption that national polling could be used to measure the presidential election.

There are circumstances where a national poll can be a signpost for further analysis. Bennett contends “a certain lead [in the national poll] would tend to indicate an electoral college lead.” That number is estimated at ten percent, according to John Gorman, president of Opinion Dynamics Corporation, a polling firm that has partnered with Fox News for this election season.

Since Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination in early March, neither candidate has had a lead near the ten percent margin suggested by Gorham. So far, a large lead for either candidate has hovered at the five percent mark.

As Payne sees it, voters are tired of reading headlines declaring the race an almost dead heat. “How many times can we be told the country is split down the middle?”

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.