All Eyes on the Horse Race

Ease up on the poll-craziness

In the September/October edition of the Columbia Journalism Review we awarded a laurel to the Lincoln Journal-Star for its Epilogue series. The Nebraska paper’s reporters follow up on an old story—a death, a birth, a freak illness in a local teenage girl—and find a new and related story to be told years later. In an age of report-publish-forget, it’s a refreshing idea. And it’s well executed.

I was thinking about that story yesterday as I perused various blogs and news sites. The story—again—is another wave of polls spelling doom for the Democrats. It’s the epilogue we keep on getting and it might be time to take a break.

We all know today’s news cycle as generated and perpetuated by the cable news/Internet bubble is famously ephemeral. It’s certainly nothing new to say that we live in an age when stories explode in clouds of links, only to disappear like so much smoke before the next “publish” button is clicked. For three weeks the story of our time was oil and energy. Three weeks later, it was race. A month after that, Islamaphobia. A week later, Iraq. This weekend it was jobs. Today, it’s the coming Republican avalanche.

One story that seems to stick, getting a new epilogue every week, is the state of the economy. Rightly, it has dominated the news, riding out the Henry Louis Gates’s and Shirley Sherrods and Glenn Beck rallies and ACORN scandals. It is the story of the moment, and has been since Lehman fell. The amount of coverage reflects the importance of the issue.

But the other story we seem to dish endless epilogues out to, while ignoring much else, troubles me: that’s the race to the November 2 midterm elections. Not the issues involved—mostly, the economy—but the race. The politicking. The strategies, endorsements, gains, and losses. And, mostly, the polls.

It seems every time a new poll is released, political reporters jump to the ready. We feverishly sift through the figures, find an angle (often laid out in a nice summary report), attach a few adjectives, and slap on a bold headline. In January, those headlines rang loud with talk of anti-health care sentiment and talk of Scott Brown. Was his win a GOP template for the midterms? By February, outlets were reporting voters’ doubts about Obama and the economy—pundits prognosticated about what would happen “if midterms were held today.” Unfortunately, they’d have to wait some seven months. In March, Obama’s job approval sank to historic new lows, according to polls. April was about polls showing the anti-incumbency sentiment gripping the country. By May, the house was in play. In June, we found out Republicans were energized. In July, polls told Dems to start prepping for senate losses. By August, it was electoral Armageddon for the party in power. This weekend, Charlie Cook had us wondering whether the Senate is truly set to tip. This week, Time is counting down to the Republican “tsunami.”

It’s as if Congress is Brad and Angelina, and we the front cover of People. They’re breaking up. He’s cheating. She’s a monster. It’s doomed, we promise. Yet, they’re still together.

Maybe I’ve just had it with giant wave metaphors. Maybe it’s just that I’m the type who likes to watch the Oscars without knowing ahead of time that Mo’nique is a lock for best supporting actress. But all this follow-up reporting on what essentially amounts to a political horse race in which issues are merely decorative—the question is less what Obama said on Labor Day than how those words play into Nancy Pelosi’s future—seems feverish and indulgent.

Every time a new poll comes in we dive in, find a headline, and shout out. The loudest meme catches fire, and by the next day, the papers are reporting doom and gloom, again. Recipe serves 300 million.

But do we really need to report on new polls just because they happen to be released? People are interested in who’s winning, who’s losing, and who needs to invest in an ark. But do we always need to lead with it? It’s not as if the original story keeps changing.

Does it truly serve readers to know that fewer people will vote for the Democrats in November? Aren’t we essentially reporting back to readers what they reported to some autobot on the other end of the phone last week? Should we not be more focused on the issues that inform their answers—the economy and jobs, but also education, health, war etc.

Clearly, there is a place for polling. People like it, we need to be aware of changing attitudes, etc. And, clearly, this post is the work of a frustrated someone who spends their days sifting through the political blogosphere, fending off new polls as if trapped in an endless game of Space Invaders. But the glut of polls and poll-based follow-up on the midterms, the pre-talk of pre-winners and pre-losers, feels especially frustrating because of the nature of the current news cycle. We continue to track stories of race and war, but not as relentlessly as we do the pointy zig-zag of the Gallup poll. This should be the ephemera, but it’s not. Bring on November 3. I’ll read the epilogue then.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.