One Last Swing On The Tire?

Since the primaries, Josh Marshall has been tracking the "tire swing" effect among media pundits, their tendency to continue carrying McCain's water, and to hold to the myth of "maverickyness" that for so long made McCain the political equivalent of Brett Favre.

I thought of the tire swing when I opened my AOL mail this afternoon and saw this headline: "Presidential Race Tightens, AP Says." Now, as Sarah Vowell noted in her wonderful book, Radio On, AOL headlines have long been a source of humor, due to their surreal mixture of the newsy, the trashy, and the banal (for instance, as the server moved through the day's news, the headline above was quickly replaced with "Remember Daisy Duke?" and "Gifts That Say, 'I'm So Sorry'"). And many of the poltical headlines since the summer have shown an almost comically blatant tendency to spin for the GOP.

But this headline particularly puzzled me because, as I scanned through other news sites, I couldn't find other stories verifying its suggestion that McCain had pulled to within a point (44%-43%) of Obama. Indeed, most of the headlines were suggesting that the national numbers had remained more or less as they'd been for a week, and that Obama had surged in several key battleground states. Even the AOL/AP story questioned its own headline:

Polls are snapshots of highly fluid campaigns. In this case, there is a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; that means Obama could be ahead by as many as 8 points or down by as many as 6. There are many reasons why polls differ, including methods of estimating likely voters and the wording of questions.

Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor and polling authority, said variation between polls occurs, in part, because pollsters interview random samples of people.

"If they all agree, somebody would be doing something terribly wrong," he said of polls. But he also said that surveys generally fall within a few points of each other, adding, "When you get much beyond that, there's something to explain."

The AP-GfK survey included interviews with a large sample of adults including 800 deemed likely to vote. Among all 1,101 adults interviewed, the survey showed Obama ahead 47 percent to 37 percent. He was up by five points among registered voters.

Now, I'll be the first to admit my PoliSci training was more in qualitative, theoretical analysis (philosophy, theory, history, trends) than it was in quantitative work, and I've always found abstracting out poll numbers to be a maddening job. So I toss it out to you all: is there something I'm missing here? Or is this just one more ride on the tire swing by a news organization already called out this year for its McCain bias?


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