The Media Today

Superstition, polls, and the Biden blowout narrative

October 13, 2020

Last week, Peggy Noonan, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, wrote that reporters and politicians in DC were starting to think the unthinkable, or at least the unsayable: that Joe Biden might beat Donald Trump in a landslide. “No one will talk about it in public because they’re not idiots,” Noonan wrote, of the possibility. “Journalists don’t want to be embarrassed if they’ve got it wrong; Democrats don’t want to encourage complacency; Republicans don’t want to demoralize the troops; and the networks have to keep everyone hopped up on the horse race.” On Meet the Press, Chuck Todd read that excerpt from Noonan’s column, and asked Jake Sherman, of Politico, to weigh in on the whispers. “I think it’s undoubtedly true that Republicans, at this point—and this clip might become famous if I’m wrong—are in a really tough spot,” Sherman said. Elsewhere, Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, noted that many journalists and pundits seem to be “nervous” about believing the polls, even though they keep showing Biden with a commanding lead over Trump. “What about you?” Stelter asked his viewers. “Do you believe polls? Should you trust the national and state polls?”

The potential for a Biden landslide is now officially one of those things that everyone is talking about by saying that no one will talk about it. The elephant (or donkey) in the room, of course, is what happened in 2016, when many in the media conveyed the impression of Hillary Clinton’s inevitability against Trump, only for their overconfidence to blow up in their faces. As Clare Malone, of FiveThirtyEight, told Stelter, many commentators have an “emotional reticence” to accept polls based on a “2016 hangover.” In a column for CJR’s recent magazine on election coverage, Sam Wang, a professor of neuro­science and director of the Princeton Election Consortium, made a related point: after 2016, “our brains may have turned an emotional experience with polling into a lasting trauma.”

New from CJR: How Are We Feeling?

This trauma, Wang argues, is derived from the “wrong triggering event”—the polls in 2016 weren’t as bad as we remember them being. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver subsequently put it, presidential polls that year “were about as accurate as polls of presidential elections have been on average since 1972”; in other words, “the media narrative that polling accuracy has taken a nosedive is mostly bullshit.” Polls and attendant models, including probability forecasts, have always been imperfect; a bigger problem in 2016 was the way in which many in the media discussed them, showing scant regard for caveats and a woeful misunderstanding of how probability works. (If you were told you have a ten-percent chance of being bitten by a rattlesnake, would you be relaxed about it?) This time around, we are treating the metrics with greater care. (On the whole, at any rate: CNN’s Chris Cillizza did recently tweet that Trump “has almost no chance” of winning in November when, in fact, several models then pegged his chance as somewhere around one in five; Cillizza was roundly whaled on, including by Silver.) The risk, here, is one of overcorrection. There are plenty of rational reasons to be cautious around polls—the margin of error, their snapshot nature, the differences between national and swing-state polls—without treating them like a branch of mysticism.

It’s not just polling: with minimal hindsight, almost every aspect of the 2016 election took on something of a mystical quality. Trump’s victory led many of us to believe that he is a master manipulator with some kind of secret sauce—an impression that has, in turn, fed nervous speculation that he’ll pull out a gamechanger between now and Election Day 2020. He might. But he also might not; it’s entirely reasonable to read the events of 2016 as a fluke, as David A. Graham did in a cogent recent piece for The Atlantic, rather than as a profound electoral realignment or a consequence of special genius on Trump’s part. That’s not to advise complacency; it’s to advise coverage driven by a rational assessment of the available data, rather than superstition. Thinking it’s savvy to nay-say based on a gut feeling is the sort of thing Trump does.

As it happens, what looks like Trump’s likeliest potential gamechanger—and a big, legitimate reason to take the polls with a pinch of salt—is already a matter of observed fact: his all-out war on the integrity of the election and his Republican allies’ particularly brazen efforts at voter suppression in the midst of a pandemic. Recent polls may well be an accurate reflection of how people intend to vote, but Trump and his allies have made it clear that they don’t see all votes as equally legitimate, and polls and attendant models can’t really account for that. FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast, for instance, assumes “that there are reasonable efforts to allow eligible citizens to vote and to count all legal ballots, and that electors are awarded to the popular-vote winner in each state,” and “does not account for the possibility of extraconstitutional shenanigans by Trump or by anyone else.” Clearly, we don’t yet know what the result will be and how Trump will respond to it—but fears that he won’t accept it aren’t mere guesswork: they’re based in meticulous reporting, and his own repeated, public threats.

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As I wrote last week, the exact scale of the result will matter even in the event that Trump refuses to acknowledge it: the harder he loses (if he loses), the more difficult it will likely be for him to cast doubt on the outcome and use shady legal maneuvers to try and subvert it. Current polling thus matters, too. And yet much of the present chatter about polling and the election seems more concerned with the embarrassing errors of the last war than the present dangers of this one. Again, these dangers aren’t speculative; if the election does go smoothly after all, it’ll more likely be because of the vigilance of the press than a 2016-style case of bad punditry and prediction-making. When it comes to both Biden’s lead among likely voters and Trump’s intention to deny all those voters an equal say, the writing seems already to be on the wall. Superstition ain’t the way.

Below, more on the election:

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, networks carried the first day of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Senate; members of the Senate Judiciary Committee gave statements, then Barrett made her opening remarks. Senators will begin questioning Barrett today. Sen. Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, turned up in person to yesterday’s proceedings and spoke without a mask—just eleven days after he tested positive for COVID-19. The pandemic framed much advance coverage of the hearing; so, as I wrote yesterday, did Joe Biden’s refusal to answer questions about court packing. On his blog, Press Run, Eric Boehlert argues that the press shouldn’t use the term “packing” as “it carries a partisan, Republican connotation,” and should say “expanding” instead.
  • Also yesterday, Trump returned to the campaign trail just ten days after announcing his own COVID diagnosis; he told a crowd in Florida that he’s fully recovered and feeling great. (“I’ll kiss everyone in that audience,” Trump said. “Just give you a big fat kiss.”) Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, finally confirmed yesterday that the president is now testing negative for COVID—but outside experts warn that he could still be infectious. Given the ongoing health risk posed by Trump and his staff, outlets including the Times, the Post, and the Journal declined to send reporters to travel with the president this week, and the White House Correspondents’ Association is having to scramble to fill out its press pool. Michael M. Grynbaum has more for the Times.
  • Andrew Marantz, of the New Yorker, assesses why Facebook can’t fix its problems with hate speech and disinformation. The company has said that rooting out hate is like looking for needles in a haystack, but that’s a flawed analogy, Marantz writes. “A more honest metaphor would posit a powerful set of magnets at the center of the haystack—Facebook’s algorithms, which attract and elevate whatever content is most highly charged. If there are needles anywhere nearby—and, on the Internet, there always are—the magnets will pull them in. Remove as many as you want today; more will reappear tomorrow. This is how the system is designed to work.”
  • For CJR, April Ehrlich, a reporter with Jefferson Public Radio in Oregon and California, reassesses her past reporting on wildfire preparedness in light of her own recent evacuation from her home. Even as fire engulfed her town, she never got an evacuation notice. The experience, she writes, has “left me wondering whether my own local officials ever read or listened to my reporting—or whether it was all a waste of time.”
  • For Poynter, John Loeppky and Julia Métraux report that the pandemic has exposed “a disability reporting gap.” The media industry “sorely lacks disability representation, even as COVID-19 pushes disability-rights topics like accessibility and mail-in voting to the forefront.” Searching for disability in news stories “and finding nothing—or worse, finding something actively harmful—is a regular part of every disabled journalist’s routine.”
  • And the International Center for Journalists and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism surveyed 1,406 English-speaking journalists and media workers from 125 countries about their experiences covering the pandemic. The results depict “a profession absorbed in essential work amid a decreased sense of security and an overwhelming amount of mis- and disinformation.” Julie Posetti, Emily Bell, and Peter Brown have more for CJR.

ICYMI: Amplifying Republican talking points around Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.