Polls, polls, polls…….that’s all the media talk about. Pundits, reporters, and talk-show hosts talk about polls and then discuss whether a candidate's attacks are moving the polls. They turn an important conversation about real ideas into the proverbial horse race. Horse races are exciting of course. That’s why the media frame their coverage this way. That’s why we listen. But that doesn’t make it good journalism.
50% of New Hampshire voters decide in the last three days. That’s what exit-polling of actual voters on Election Day reveals. My students’ phoning and canvassing confirm this observation. They work hard to identify and persuade undecided voters; there are a lot of them. Yet polls report that everyone has a preference as far back as last July. This is because the act of polling creates opinion where there is none. When confronted with choices presented by the phoning pollster, an undecided voter declares a preference. They say they favor a candidate---even when they don’t.
The media almost never discuss undecided voters. Moreover, when they report on what candidates say about issues or other candidates, they focus on how the message performs in the faulty polls. Hours and hours of coverage has focused on the impact of Donald Trump’s outrageous statements on his standing in the polls. The broader picture is an inane media environment.
Tom Patterson, a Harvard political scientist who spoke to my class, wants journalists to have more subject-matter knowledge. In his recent book, he calls it knowledge-based journalism . For example, when discussing the effect of Bernie Sanders’s socialist identity on his standing in the race, journalists might actually discuss what socialism is. Or when noting the polling bonanza reaped by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant comments, journalists might discuss what deporting 12 million Mexican workers might actually look like.
The horse race will never go away. It holds our attention. To some degree, we like it. But we need more substantive coverage of the campaign’s discussion of the key issues facing our nation and world.