TCS Daily

The Poll Vaulters

By Patrick Cox - November 4, 2004 12:00 AM

According to journalist Jim Angle, Fox News' presidential embed on election night, even the first family was stunned and shaken by exit polls showing challenger Kerry doing far better than they had expected. Democrats watching the same data were, according to liberal insider Eleanor Clift, in a state of euphoria.

As those predictions proved inaccurate, puzzlement increased over the failure of the National Election Pool, the polling organization paid by a coalition of major news organizations, to provide an accurate representation of the election results. Journalists and pundits have put forth varying theories about outdated predictive models, some marginally useful, but the real reason for the under-representation of Bush/conservative voters is not that complicated.

Simply put, it is National Election Pool's employer, big media, that skews exit polls. This is not to say, however, that pollsters consciously or even subconsciously slanted their results to present an illusion of a Kerry momentum so late in the election process -- as some are insisting. Rather, the basis for the exit poll failure is the deep resentment among those who perceive the mainstream media, MSM in blogspeak, as antagonistic to their views and values. In fact, this election cycle has seen a deepening of this already fierce resentment.

As an economist, I have been astonished by the unwillingness of the MSM, for decades, to provide a product for which there is a clear demand. That product, of course, is coverage of issues and elections in a manner that respects the views of "non-liberal" customers (viewers and readers.)

I understand, of course, that much of the MSM itself denies this bias, but enough has been written about that subject by the likes of Bernard Goldberg and others that I feel no need, here at least, to counter those protestations. Moreover, my point is not that bias is bad. I suspect, in fact, that there is no way to present the news without communicating, at least in part, the reporter's perspective. I would, however, prefer that reporters not pretend they do not have a perspective.

Anyway, from the point of view of an economist, all that is necessary is to cite surveys that consistently show significant numbers of non-liberal consumers believe the dominant news media is biased against them. For the old media to persist in its attitude that the complaints of approximately half its customer base are illegitimate is analogous to Starbucks insisting it will sell only decaf tea to consumers who order double espressos in the morning.

Monopoly theory, in fact, predicts that the financial incentive to provide a repressed product will be enormous. Ultimately, the reward for providing that unprovided product, absent coercive regulation, will make it virtually inevitable that somebody will overcome industry barriers and serve that pent-up demand.

The phenomenal success of Fox News has demonstrated dramatically what happens when an entire industry fails to serve a significant sector of the market. Prior to the emergence of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh proved how lucrative it could be to serve a market not addressed by the larger media community, even though he had to do so using the less prestigious medium of AM radio.

Fox now enjoys the enormous advantage of being the only perceived "conservative-friendly" television network while all of the rest of the established organizations are left fighting among themselves over the other half of the political spectrum. One has, almost, to admire the MSM's insistence on putting its own world-view and political preferences above its own financial interests. The old media has, in fact, behaved far more like an ideological non-profit community than a business.

Based on financial interests, I would have expected the old networks to moderate their coverage this political season. Rather than doing so, however, the old media seemed engaged in a desperate attempt to re-establish their ability to define the terms of the debate.

Unbalanced reporting of the controversies surrounding the presidential candidates' military records and Dan Rather's obstinate defense of obviously forged documents proved that the MSM is still unable or unwilling to recognize the new realities. The capstone of their efforts was the near spiking of the Pentagon's press conference explaining the handling of the Al QaQaa explosives, even as Democrats maintained that the weapons in question had been abandoned by George W. Bush, into the hands of terrorists.

I would, by the way, expect that the next Democratic candidate for president may not so willingly trust the "shadow DNC" in the old media to write the campaign talking points -- but I've been wrong about such things in the past.

Regardless, the point is that right-of-center voters are angrier than ever at the old news organizations. The existence of a partial counterbalance to the old media, in Fox, talk radio and the blogs, has not satisfied those who still feel slighted and manipulated by the networks and big newspapers. Rather, alternate news sources, such as this site, have acted to encourage the view that Rather/Brokaw/Jennings/etceteras are just not playing fair.

When a voter is confronted by a pollster in the service of the news media, therefore, what would a rational observer expect an unsatisfied media consumer to do? Would we expect an angry conservative to "spend" the time to help, without compensation, an industry that has by and large ignored that voter's attitudes regarding matters as emotionally charged as the selection of a president?

Clearly, this is an irrational expectation. I personally know numbers of people who have hung up on pollsters and gone out of their way to avoid people carrying clipboards.

By definition, it is extremely difficult, if not practically impossible, for statisticians to accurately model the behavior of those who refuse utterly to participate in their exit or other polls. The tricks and gimmicks used by pollsters to estimate these people's behavior are just that, and cannot approach any level of scientific reliability.

Those in the media who bemoan the inaccuracy of polls ought to examine their own exclusionist culture that has, for so long, treated conservatives as if they either didn't matter or, worse, didn't exist. That many of the excluded now cooperate tacitly with the old media's blackout should surprise no one.


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