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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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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