Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling said he did not rely solely on his survey numbers to arrive at his conclusions. He has been polling in Florida for many years and he says he also looks at the numbers and uses his best judgment based on experience to determine the validity of his polling. (Disclosure: last year I spoke with Coker about doing a poll for a non-profit client and may use his firm in the future). Still, Coker acknowledges that a survey of 400 Hispanics would give him and his clients a better understanding of the Hispanic community than a sampling of 75. (Although, in the Times piece, Coker is quoted as simply observing that Romney has “completely flipped the table with Hispanic voters this time around,” having lost Florida in 2008 to John McCain “largely,” the Times wrote, “thanks to Romney’s anemic showing in South Florida and among Hispanic Republicans.”)
Another problem is that neither the Times nor the Herald released its complete polling results with questions and crosstabs (the Times posted poll questions online). While print news holes may be too small, there is no reason not to post all of this information on the newspaper websites. The timing of the release is also problematic. The poll was conducted during the period of January 24-26. The results were not released on the newspaper websites until very late on Saturday, January 28. The results then appeared in the Sunday paper, three days after the survey was completed. Pollsters will tell you there is simply too much volatility that close to an election to hold on to poll results for three days. Even voters surveyed on the 24th could have changed their opinion by the 25th.
The worst example I can recall of a newspaper misusing a poll occurred in 1986, during the Democratic primary for Florida governor. The Palm Beach Post, where I spent nearly all of my 28 years as a political editor, conducted a reputable, well-done poll. The executive editor ordered that the poll not run until the Sunday before the election. The newsroom howled and I was one of those who howled the loudest. Why? Because by the time we ran the poll it was two weeks old. Our pollsters were rightfully outraged. The newspaper was humiliated.
Tom Fiedler, then the political editor of the Miami Herald and now the Dean of the College of Communications at Boston University, took us to task, writing in his September 14, 1986 column:
The news media began using [polls] benignly enough. When we wanted to gauge how a candidate was doing, we found we could substitute the scientifically selected random sample for the traditional man-on-the-street interview.
Where would we be today without the poll to tell us the front-runner, the long-shot and the hopeless cause in any race?
Let me make plain that I do not want to discourage news media polling. Good polls provide an independent measure of how a candidate is doing; without them, we would be at the mercy of numbers leaked to us by candidate pollsters, always for selfish ends.
But if we print a poll in the closing hours of a race—a time when voters are making up their minds in massive blocs on God knows what basis—then we must move cautiously, if at all.
What can we do? First, we in the media have to understand this monster we have hired. Political polling is a fine art, having to measure such variables as likely voters, demographic balances and—trickiest of all—the dynamics of the electorate, which can stampede at the end.
We have to be honest with readers about the shortcomings of a poll we print—and courageous enough to spike one we don’t trust.
Fiedler was right 26 years ago. And he is right today. News organizations are getting increasingly sloppy with reporting on—and addressing the shortcomings of—their own polls, not to mention asking tough questions of all the other polls that seem to pop up every day.
The National Council on Public Polls offers 20 questions journalists should ask about poll results. Let’s ask them.