Pollsters, Polls, and the Flip-Flop Saga

The New Yorker this week runs 200 pages deep with Campaign Desk fodder, from Columbia Journalism School’s own Nicholas Lemann on George Bush to Nancy Franklin on the WB’s “Jack and Bobby.” However, Larissa MacFarquhar’s expose on pollster John Zogby gets our nod as the Campaign Desk “must read” of the week. As MacFarquhar points out, “pollster’s protests’ notwithstanding,” polls do affect elections. The piece captures Zogby’s role in the polling world as an outside-the-Beltway eccentric. “Zogby doesn’t want to be scientific: he wants to be right,” writes MacFarquhar. Mixed in with biographical notes are thorough explanations of the problems confounding political polling including likely voter models, callback procedures, and the weighting of party identification — the subject of a recent controversy concerning the Gallup poll.

With that whole election thing set to take place in three weeks, The Economist is on a similar editorial schedule, offering a 34-page pullout section “on all the issues that matter.” The highlight of its regular coverage is the publication’s informal survey (PDF) of academics. There’s a clear consensus among those polled that “Mr. Bush’s [economic policies] win low marks.” Academics favor Bush’s policy on free trade and globalization, but favor Kerry on six other topics including promoting fiscal discipline, preparing for baby-boomers’ retirement, health-care costs, creating jobs, energy policy, and economic growth.

The New Republic brings us Jonathan Chait’s deconstruction (subscription required) of the “flip-flop” label that Bush has pinned on Kerry. Chait provides a sorely needed examination of each candidate’s record and concludes, “You could debate which man has flip-flopped more. But one thing is clear: If a stranger unfamiliar with the campaign examined the two men’s records, he would never conclude that Kerry is a serial flip-flopper and Bush is the embodiment of consistency.” He traces the evolution of the charge from Dukakis to Clinton to Gore to Kerry. The “powerful, though unwitting” media, determines Chait, is largely responsible for the proliferation of the “flip-flop” charge. Harping on many of Campaign Desk’s favorite grumblings, Chait intones, “Once a narrative template has been established, nearly any fact can be wedged into it.”

Both Time and Newsweek serve up cover stories about your vote, with Time focusing on Bush’s and Kerry’s “Battle for Every Last Vote” and Newsweek asking, “Will Your Vote Be Counted?” It’s all about the ground game in Time’s “Crunchtime,” which concludes that early reports of Democrats eclipsing Republicans in registration haven’t tempered the Democrat’s fear of the Republican’s “full force” operation in the last few days of the campaign. Newsweek runs down the potential “hurricanes” that could challenge the Nov. 2 count, wistfully mentioning the “decency of Richard Nixon” after he refused to challenge JFK’s victory in 1960 despite Eisenhower’s urging.

Tom Brokaw, writing in Newsweek, is also concerned about the state of our polling booths: “If [the voting] system breaks down, it may cause us to mistakenly project the wrong result—but the much greater risk is that the true will of the voters will be nullified.” Given the debacle in 2000, Brokaw pledges to be more cautious this year, stating, “As for election night, if the early analysis shows the election is close in any given state, I suspect all the networks and cable-news outlets will be less eager to be first with the call. I know we will be.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but somehow we’re guessing it won’t all be sunshine and flowers on election day.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.