July 28, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

N.C. Controversy Reveals Perils of Reporting on Polls

One of the growing problems with political reporting is the explosion of polls and the tendency — particularly among local TV reporters and editors, cable TV hosts and bloggers — to report all of them as if they are equally reliable and newsworthy, and to draw dramatic conclusions from small subsamples and from statistically insignificant changes.

Polls receive so much attention that they become the focus of races — even if the actual races haven’t really started. This is true right now in North Carolina and Nevada, where Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) look weak in early surveys even though they have not drawn heavyweight opponents.

Recently, Republicans have started complaining long and hard about polling conducted this cycle by Public Policy Polling in the Tar Heel State. They note, quite correctly, that PPP is a Democratic polling firm and that too many reporters fail to note their partisan bent. GOP insiders also complain about the firm’s sample, arguing that it often is too urban and too Democratic, and that its surveys understate Burr’s strength and his prospects for re-election.

If readers don’t know that PPP is a Democratic firm, they are reading the wrong publications. At the Rothenberg Political Report, we’ve regarded PPP as a Democratic firm, and identified it as such, since it has been around. In February, Roll Call reporter John McArdle wrote a lengthy article about PPP, calling it “a Democratic firm based in Raleigh” and referring to the company’s “controversial” methodology. National Journal’s Hotline also identifies PPP as a Democratic firm, as does the News & Observer (Raleigh).

It’s true that some newspapers don’t always note PPP’s Democratic credentials — including the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the News-Topic (Lenoir, N.C.) — but that’s not PPP’s fault. Obviously, any reporter who fails to note the firm’s partisan bent is making an error, and Republicans have a legitimate gripe with them.

GOP efforts to discredit PPP because it is a Democratic firm are a different story. Yes, it’s important to note the firm’s partisan connections, and it’s not unreasonable to be wary, at least initially, of its numbers. But the fact that the polling firm works for Democrats doesn’t make its poll numbers inherently flawed.

In fact, the handful of us who have been reporting on and handicapping House and Senate races for many years tend to believe that partisan pollsters generally produce more reliable numbers than colleges and some newspapers. The key, of course, is to get them to share those numbers and to discuss them free of spin.

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