Who were the biggest losers of the midterms? The media! wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank November 9.
The vast majority of political journalists were suckered, swayed, and misled by “an extraordinary profusion of bad partisan polling,” wrote Milbank. He wasn’t. He had doubts about a “red wave” early on, of course.
It’s not that he’s wrong, or so self-congratulatory, that makes this exasperating. The media’s misplaced predictions of a Democratic rout have been the subject of solipsistic discussion for dreary weeks now.
What makes the obsession with polling so problematic is that it ignores the way that polls, even when they’re right, are bad for our politics. Polls shrink our options, over-determine policy, and distract us from real life.
In the run up to the midterms, in many places, reporting on polling became a substitute for reporting on issues. “When mainstream media cover the polling on the issues, they’re not really covering abortion, climate change, your garbage pickup, your kid’s PTA” Mitra Kalita of the newsletter, Epicenter NYC told me this week.
“There’s also a tendency to just follow along,” says Stephanie Williams of the IE Voice in California’s Inland Empire. Instead of reading the pulse of what’s actually happening, reporters fall into the trap of framing everything around polling.
Framing, in polling, amounts to presenting voters with a limited array of options. Some pollsters asked voters to rate their “degree of concern” about “crime” “inflation” “abortion” or “the economy.” Others asked which single issue was most important to their vote, or to “the nation.”
Differences in wording produce wildly different results – hence the term, “partisan polling.” Some this-or-that choices are just silly. (In what world, after all, is being forced to carry a pregnancy to term not also an economic concern?)
Some options are off the table. If you’re concerned that “the economy” is doing well at doing damage — and you’d prefer a different one altogether — that’s not an option. Democrat or Republican, if you worry that war spending fuels war, when investing in peace making would better serve the nation, that’s not, either.
Polling only measures some public desires. Want more democracy in your workplace? A four-day work week? A crackdown on crime of the corporate kind? Legalizing marijuana was massively popular for years before policy makers ever noticed.
Summarizing the 2022 race, CNN’s Ronald Brownstein declared that the choice for voters could be “condensed to a single phrase: Your money or your rights?”
Real people don’t live this way. We’d like both, and some other options. The biggest loser from money media’s misleading dependence on polling isn’t the media, it’s the public imagination.