By Zachary Roth

The story of polls, the press, and Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary is not a pretty one, and there are no heroes.

In the smoking wreckage of the aftermath, it was painfully noticeable that pollsters and just about the entire campaign press failed to predict the late surge in Wisconsin that carried Sen. John Edwards to renewed prominence.

There was a precedent that reporters might have paid attention to here. In Iowa, polls taken even the day before the contest showed the race to be almost a four-way dead-heat, between Edwards, John Kerry, Howard Dean, and Dick Gephardt. Those polls didn’t come close to predicting Kerry’s margin of victory, particularly over Dean and Gephardt, who lost by 20 and 27 points respectively.

The pollsters have already expressed their own mea culpas over Wisconsin. As Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times reported yesterday, the head of Mitofsky Research — the exit polling service used by the networks and the Associated Press — on Wednesday posted the following note on a polling website:

“Yesterday exposed the biggest goofs in my memory.”

But Campaign Desk is more interested in the 2004 campaign press’s habit of making altogether too much of this consistently unreliable source. As Steve Seplow, a former campaign reporter and Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, puts it, “What is more lazy than a reporter who relies on polls?”

In the days leading up to the Wisconsin vote, the press went astray in two different ways.

Here’s how:

First, the final poll last week by the American Research Group (ARG) showed Kerry 53 percent, Edwards 16 percent, Dean 11 percent. That turned out to be shockingly inaccurate — the actual vote count was Kerry 40, Edwards 34, Dean 18. But that final ARG poll was conducted February 12 - five days before Wisconsinites went to the polls.

Why didn’t ARG poll after that? Dick Bennett, ARG’s president, told Campaign Desk that his news media clients —who he would identify only as a group of radio stations in Wisconsin and the Chicago area — decided not to pay for additional polling after February 12.

Those stations employ Bennett not only as a pollster — a provider of raw data — but also as a conventional political pundit who appears on their shows to interpret that data, and to speak more generally about the race as a whole.

According to Bennett, “the stations thought Dean was surging,” based not on Bennett’s research, but on anecdotal evidence, like the size of his crowds. That was a storyline the stations liked, since it suggested a dynamic, exciting race in which the much-maligned outsider might be staging a late comeback. So in the week before the race, everyone seemed to settle on the “surging Dean” theme.

Problem was, Bennett’s ARG polls weren’t picking that up. His February 12 survey, in addition to giving Kerry a 37-point lead, also showed that Dean’s unfavorable ratings were so high as to prevent him from challenging Kerry for the lead.

Having decided that Bennett’s polling didn’t fit the agreed-upon script, the stations stopped commissioning any more ARG surveys for the crucial final five days of the campaign. “When I didn’t find (a Dean surge), that’s no fun … cause what do you talk about?” said Bennett.

As Bennett sees it, the consortium of radio stations that made up ARG’s clients were cherry-picking poll results, choosing to commission only those surveys that they expected would show a Dean surge — not because they’re Deaniacs, but rather because of a desire to create and sustain what they saw as a compelling storyline.

Aside from missing the real story — Edwards’ surge in the race’s last few days, driven by a strong debate performance on Feb 15, and the endorsement the next day of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the state’s largest paper — the stations’ bias turned them from purveyors of news into creators of a story line that didn’t correspond to reality.

A more conventional misuse of polling data was displayed by most of the national media.

Here’s a representative lede from David Broder and Jim Vandehei’s Washington Post story on the morning of the vote:

Struggling to keep their White House bids viable, John Edwards and Howard Dean on Monday implored Wisconsin voters to shake up the race for the Democratic nomination by delivering an upset in Tuesday’s crucial primary. But Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), winner of all but two of the first 16 delegate contests, appeared headed for another victory, perhaps by a large enough margin to knock the senator from North Carolina or the former Vermont governor out of the race.

Broder and Vandehei continue: “Edwards vowed to stick with his campaign at least until March 9, though advisers privately acknowledge a big loss Tuesday could sound the end.”

A few paragraphs later, they reveal the basis for their Kerry-centric approach: a Zogby/MSNBC/Reuters poll released that day, which showed Kerry 47 percent, Dean 23 percent, Edwards 20 percent - a survey that turned out to be only slightly more accurate than the earlier ARG poll.

It’s clear the poll results were the determining factor in the tone of the coverage. Had the poll showed a close race, would the Post have begun the piece by declaring that Edwards was “struggling to keep (his) White House bid viable”?

Mark Barabak of the Los Angeles Times did the same thing. On February 15, he wrote, “In recent years, however, Wisconsin voters have tended to ratify the front-runner who emerged in earlier contests. True to that form, polls last week gave Kerry a commanding lead in the state.”

When citing polls in Wisconsin that final week, reporters might have noted that to date the dynamics of this electorate seem to have consistently eluded pollsters. It’s the most basic kind of caveat: “So far, this source hasn’t been reliable.” Some stories did include such cautionary notes, but too many, like Broder and Vandehei’s, and Barabak’s, did not.

There’s more to this than just egg on a few reporters’ faces. By making so much of polls which utterly failed to measure Edwards’ appeal to late-deciding voters, the Post and others set the bar almost impossibly high for Kerry in Wisconsin. Thus when Kerry’s victory turned out to be narrower than anticipated, the press immediately ruled that his campaign had lost its aura of inevitability. Jeff Greenfield’s characterization of polls as the “crack cocaine” of political junkies never looked so apt.

As for ARG’s local clients, they did even worse, if Bennett is to be believed — creating a desired storyline, then actively avoiding any hint of evidence to the contrary.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.