Putting the Polls in Their Place

The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney inadvertently shined the spotlight this morning on the fickle nature of polls, pollsters and the press.

That’s not actually the primary message of Nagourney’s piece from Boston — his premise is the tepid contention that things only get harder for Kerry from here on out — but it is the take-home lesson to be extracted by a diligent reader.

Nagourney reminds us that “the success of Mr. Kerry’s convention will be gauged by no small measure by post-convention polls,” and recalls the expectations-stakes that began a couple of weeks ago when the Bush campaign circulated numbers arguing that if the convention didn’t give Kerry a 15 point boost in the polls, it could be considered a flop. The Kerry campaign (and many independent pollsters) shot that idea down almost as quickly as it was floated — but look for a re-emergence over the weekend.

What’s going on here is an exercise in goal-setting by what Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker has so elegantly labeled “The Expectorate” — that gaggle of reporters, pollsters, consultants, commentators and spinmeisters who a) decide how a candidate is expected to do, and b) declare afterward that said candidate did better or worse than said expectations.

Nagourney is no Hertzberg, so you won’t learn that from his piece — after all, he’s a member of The Expectorate himself — but you will learn something about polls, those inexplicable exercises in prediction which, for example, tell us right now that a) President Bush’s job approval rating has nosedived; b) a majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction; and c) even so, “in recent polls, Americans said they had more confidence in Mr. Bush to make the right decisions to protect the country compared with Mr. Kerry.”

And Nagourney does usefully remind us that in 1988 Michael Dukakis left the Democratic convention with a resounding 17-point lead over George Bush the elder — which he promptly squandered within a matter of weeks.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.