Do the Media Pay Too Much Attention to Polls?

The media seem to crown a new frontrunner in the presidential election after each new poll is released.

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The presidential election is three weeks and two debates away, and much media attention is being given to the constant oscillation of poll numbers. The numbers have shown both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney ahead, and each campaign tries to capitalize when their candidate is found to be winning.

The campaign narrative is constantly shaped by the back-and-forth, and the media seem to crown a new frontrunner after every round of polling is released. Polls were quite close all summer, with Romney receiving virtually no bounce after his convention but Obama receiving a slight one after his event. Obama pulled ahead even further after Romney had a series of stumbles, including his comments about "47 percent" of Americans not paying taxes that harmed him nationally. Obama was doing so well in polls that conservatives began to question the accuracy of the data.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

The Romney campaign itself dismissed polls showing their candidate behind, with one adviser saying, "The public polls are what the public polls are … I kind of hope the Obama campaign is basing their campaign decisions on the public polls... I have great faith in our data."

But after a lackluster first debate performance, the president and his camp too are questioning the accuracy of polling data that shows the numbers swinging back in favor of Romney. They said a recent Gallup poll—which shows Obama behind Romney in 12 key swing states—" underscores  deep flaws" in the organization's polling method.

[ Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

U.S. News blogger Susan Milligan says polls used to be secondary factors in campaigns, being used as a snapshot of public opinion taken with a grain of salt. She said now the media contribute to the wishy-washy campaign storyline:

The narrative now—driven almost entirely by the polls—is that Obama is tanking, in grave danger of losing states like Pennsylvania that only two weeks ago were considered fairly reliably in the president's column. But not to worry, Obama supporters—the TV pundits also tell us that the coming debate could change everything. Again! Until the next debate, which could also change everything.


Polls can be illustrative and useful. But they should take a back seat to reporting on actual issues. No matter how enticing a one-point shift in polls might be to candidates and the press, there is really only one polls that matters. And that is the one on Election Day.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

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