Follow the Bouncing Bounce

The only thing the political press loves more than a scandal is a poll. And Newsweek this past weekend did no one any favors by releasing a poll immediately after the convention that many have interpreted as a measure of Kerry’s post-convention bounce in popularity — even though half of the poll was conducted before Kerry’s speech accepting the nomination on Thursday night.

The Newsweek web exclusive published on Saturday, July 31, revealed what it termed a “baby bump,” with Kerry’s support growing by 4 percent over his pre-convention number. Fair enough, except that Newsweek, as others have already pointed out, conducted part of the poll on Thursday — before Kerry’s speech. While Newsweek did not classify its poll as “post-convention,” it asserted the “bounce” to be the smallest in the history of the Newsweek poll. Most readers (and journalists), however, associate the term “bounce” with a post-convention boost. The misnomer was so obvious that even Republican commentator Joe Scarborough told Don Imus that he “wish[ed] Newsweek would run their poll throughout the weekend.”

Unsurprisingly, many in the media leapt at the chance to handicap the horse race, without telling viewers and readers that half of the poll had been conducted during the convention and half after the convention. One of the worst cases was Chris Wallace’s interview with Kerry and Edwards on “Fox News Sunday.” Wallace asked the two candidates if they had seen the “first post-convention poll,” citing the Newsweek poll. Kerry and Edwards promptly corrected Wallace, who proceeded to refer to the poll’s “4 point bounce” as if the poll offered a legitimate measure of Kerry’s post-convention support.

Then on Sunday the first poll conducted entirely after the convention was released. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Kerry’s support two points lower among likely voters than its prior poll. The storyline then formed that these two polls offered “mixed” indications of Kerry’s post-convention bounce. As today’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette put it, “two post-convention polls released yesterday — one by Newsweek and the other by CNN/USA Today/Gallup — offered mixed news for Kerry-Edwards team.” The Dallas Morning News similarly erred, writing in its lede that “aides to [Senator Kerry] and President Bush began playing inside baseball with conflicting polls following the Democratic convention.” The Dallas Morning News article notes Kerry’s comments that the Newsweek poll was not entirely post-convention, but fails to assert this relevant fact with the weight of the newspaper’s voice. Knowledgeable that politicians often spin poll results, the reader is left wondering whether Kerry is fudging or telling the truth.

Campaign Desk has seen this before: One half-baked story can set the tone for the entire press corps’ coverage of an issue. Reporters and editors would be wise to check the ingredients before feeding readers and viewers this particular bit of fluff.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.