The Mathematics of Balance

When are two polling numbers created equal? When the Washington press corps get of hold of them.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Weisman has a story on the front page this morning headlined, “GOP’s Base Helps Keep Unity on Iraq,” which is—you guessed it—a story about how the nitty-gritty core of the Republican party is forcing some GOP members of congress to continue to support the war, despite the lawmakers’ obvious misgivings.

Weisman cites two Republican representatives who voted for the nonbinding resolution that opposed president Bush’s troop increases, then faced the wrath of home district voters. “The experiences of the few Republicans to vote against the war help explain the remarkable unity that the party has maintained in Washington behind an unpopular president,” Weisman writes. And he’s right.

But other than that, there’s not much to recommend the piece, which is a standard bit of “he said, she said” political journalism that spends a couple hundred words repeating what you learned in the headline.

There is one thing we wanted to note, however. Weisman points to a recent Pew poll that finds that 59 percent of Americans surveyed favor a timeline for withdrawal of troops from Iraq, while 33 percent oppose such a timeline. And here, despite the fact that vastly more respondents favor a timeline, Weisman conducts one of those tiresome sleights of hand that so many Washington reporters (or at least their editors) have become infamous for: he “balances” the playing field, making the two sides sound almost even in strength, when it’s obvious that they’re not.

He does this by digging a little deeper into the numbers, and pulling out the percentage of respondents on both sides of the withdrawal debate who favor some form of compromise with their opponents, writing that,

…neither side wants compromise. Most of those supporting a timeline for withdrawal—54 percent—said Democratic leaders should insist on that position rather than compromising with Bush. The same percentage of opponents of withdrawal say that Bush should give no ground to the Democrats.

To be sure, the same percentage of those in favor of a withdrawal and of those against the withdrawal do oppose compromise with the other side, but so what? Why is Weisman giving the two sides equal weight when it’s obvious that the pool of those who oppose withdrawal is vastly smaller than those who favor it? In other words, the 54 percent of the 59 percent who oppose compromise with the “stay the course” crowd is much larger than the 54 percent of the 33 percent who don’t want to compromise with the withdrawal proponents.

Put another way, let’s say for argument’s sake that the Pew poll found 100 Americans to respond to their poll. This means that about eighteen out of that 100 would not want the president to compromise with the Democrats, while thirty-two would not want the Democrats to compromise with the president.

That’s a pretty big difference, and it’s an important difference. Why feel compelled to soften the blow with some distorted—and erroneous—notion of “balance”?

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.