Brokaw: Polls ‘Out of Control’

Jan 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary last week, a number of media outlets, citing various polls, were saying the election the next day, on the Democratic side, was going to be a romp for Barack Obama.
Of course, that did not materialize and Hillary Clinton came up as the victor.
So what happened?
Part of the problem, former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw told TelevisionWeek, is that the news media—particularly cable channels, which have so much time to fill—commission tracking polls “to have something to talk about.” In the ensuing “feeding frenzy” and competition, he said, “The characterization and discussion of the tracking polls’ findings “end up getting out of control.”
Mr. Brokaw made his comments to TelevisionWeek Wednesday in a call from backstage at “The Late Show With David Letterman.”
On-air, Mr. Brokaw told Mr. Letterman, “I think it is a cautionary tale, especially for people in our business. We had kind of a runaway attitude, I think.”
A day before that, in an appearance on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball,” Mr. Brokaw said, “You know what I think we’re going to have to go back and do? Wait for the voters to make their judgment.” When Mr. Matthews protested that he might then just as well stay home, Mr. Brokaw responded, “We don’t have to get in the business of making judgments before the polls have closed, and trying to stampede, in effect, the process.”
Mr. Brokaw, of course, was anchoring NBC’s election coverage in November 2002 when he retracted NBC News’ projection that Al Gore would win Florida, and thus the presidential election.
Back then, Mr. Brokaw said, many in the media didn’t just have egg on their faces, “We [had] an omelet.”
After that happened a number of news organizations, including all of the Big Four broadcast networks, CNN and the Associate Press, banded together to create the National Election Pool to conduct exit polling and count votes. It replaced the old Voter News Service that had failed in 2000.
But NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd said no group apologies or corrections of the election data collection system are needed after last week’s unexpected reversal of political fortunes in New Hampshire.
“That’s for individual people to worry about,” he said. “I know that at NBC News, we were well aware that this was not going to be the blowout everybody thought it was going to be, and everybody needed to pull back.
“The idea that somehow the media sort of drove this is, I think, incorrect. This was not the media. This was something that happened in New Hampshire,” he added. “Let’s figure that out. I think this is an anomaly. I think this was New Hampshire being New Hampshire.”
There are many theories about what happened in New Hampshire, from last-minute developments (the NEP exit poll showed 78% of the Democrats who voted said ABC’s Jan. 5 televised presidential debates were very or somewhat important to how they voted on Jan. 8 and 75% of Republican voters said the same), to race and gender issues, to the difference between the public caucuses in Iowa and the private voting in New Hampshire.
Some even said the blame was due to, in general, the media’s infatuation with Sen. Obama and dislike of Sen. Clinton.
There was, however, widespread agreement that perhaps the best thing about the dramatic vote in New Hampshire, which CBS Senior Political Correspondent Jeff Greenfield characterized as “this early non-nuclear embarrassment,” was that it had happened in the first primary.
The misuse of polls as predictive devices, rather than as actual reflections of the mood of voters, is “the crack cocaine of political journalism,” Mr. Greenfield said.
He said he knows how easy it is to swear off the use of polls, with their precise-looking numbers, and how hard it is to stay off—and not just for the media. “The political community is obsessed with them,” he said.
David Bohrman, Washington bureau chief for CNN, agrees with Mr. Todd that the networks don’t owe an apology to anyone. Moreover, he said, no candidate or campaign has asked for one.
He thinks the results in New Hampshire “set the table for a really interesting story” all the way through Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, the day there will be primaries in nearly half the states.
“Everybody is going to have a say in this thing,” said NBC’s Mr. Todd. “This thing might be over Feb. 6, but it’s not going to be over Feb. 4. Feb. 5 is going to be a national primary.”
But first, there are Nevada’s first-ever caucuses Jan. 19. With no historical yardstick against which to compare results, there may be an inclination to wait until all the results are in before reporting.
“I know that [with] every poll we put out on Nevada, I’m going to try to make sure that people [preface it] with caution,” Mr. Todd said.

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