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December 24, 2007

CNN Reports: Hillary Leads by Two Safeties


We’re pulling into last corner, and according to the latest CNN poll, it’s Hillary by four points. Except that, according to CNN, Hillary’s four-point lead is actually a dead heat.


You might wonder how a four-point lead is actually a dead heat, especially in a race with several different contestants. That’s because the margin of error of the poll was itself four points.


The big picture question here is why CNN is devoting its precious reporting resources on how the race is turning out rather than educating its viewers. It’s a good question, and someday someone will perhaps answer why our campaigns today – as played out in our newspapers and on our television screens – are portrayed as horse races or football games rather than campaigns to elect people to important public offices.


Someday, perhaps, this will happen, but you don’t go into a presidential campaign with the media you want, you go into it with the lousy media you got.


Here is the little-picture question: Why would CNN report that the race is neck-and-neck, when the percentages in the poll – if they reflected the percentages in the actual vote – would be reported as a clear victory for the leading candidate?


An answer to that is in how the margin of error is reflected. See, Hillary isn’t actually ahead by four points, according to the poll. Where she leads is that the average level of her support is four points ahead of the average level of support for her closest competitors – John Edwards and Barack Obama. It’s all about averages and confidences. The number four, which looks good on a scoreboard, doesn’t really exist.


The actual swing in the poll is that Hillary runs the gamut from Hillary being down by four points to one of her challengers to Hillary being ahead by 12 points. The finite realities of percentages tell us, further, that if Hillary’s lead is actually five points, that it’s because levels of support for her and her opponents were both wrong. That is to say, if Hillary were running against just one opponent and the poll was wrong by two points in favor of a closer race, it means that the poll gave her a point too many in support and low-balled the opponent by a point.


This is perhaps the most useful thing to keep in mind over the next several months. The actual number of a poll is useless except as a measure of average. Equally important is margin of error built around that.


Still, none of this distills very easily into a simple sound bite. What does, however, is calling the race a dead heat – even when it obviously isn’t.


Why isn’t it? Because there is no clear, supportable reason, according to CNN’s report, to believe that the margin of difference is less than four points. At the one extreme, it’s true that Hillary might be second or even third place in true public support; but it’s equally true that she might be as much as 12 points ahead.


CNN’s report offered no insight into why the network’s viewers should think the race is that close. Why not a six-point difference? Why not an eight-point difference?


It could be that the network monitors other polls and builds its reporting on that. Or it could be that the network was pushing a story line that is more riveting to its viewers. Or it could be that the network is following a storyline pushed by everyone else, even though it is contradicted by its own facts.


CNN is hardly the only news outlet guilty of this kind of sloppy reporting. In fact, it’s notable primarily because it offers up an indictment of how campaigns are covered. They’re less about issues and the future, and more like sporting events where the announcers are all expected to be on board with who is winning and who is losing.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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