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September 25, 2012 SHARE

Why the media spin on Nov. 6 is wrong

By Wes Pruden
A few more “really bad weeks” like last week for Mitt Romney and somebody will have to stick a fork in President Obama. He’ll be done.

Despite the hammering Mr. Romney took from the president and his media claque, he moved from 5 or 6 points behind in the Gallup Poll to a dead-even tie at the end of the week. Rasmussen, whose different methodology has made it consistently the most reliable of the polls, called the race dead-even as well.

The president still leads in severalof the swing states, so called, but in some of those his lead is shrinking. You wouldn’t know this from the noise in the mainstream media, so called, and even from some of the conservative pundits who, though easily intimidated by the noise from the back of the press bus, usually constitute the only counterweight to the prevailing liberal media mob.

Nevertheless, a different version of the news is seeping through the media consciousness. Mr. Romney took hits for his mild observation that the president’s reaction to the killing of the ambassador and three other Americans in Libya was wrong-headed, but at the end of Mr. Romney’s “really bad week” the White House insistence that the deadly riots in Libya had nothing to do with terrorism fell apart.
The president was left with scrambled sheep’s eyes (if not egg) all over his face. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s press aide became so frustrated answering questions about the administration’s crumbling story Monday that he called a reporter an [rectal aperature] and suggested that he perform an impossible sexual act on himself. Understandable, perhaps, but it reflects what happens even to presidents and their liege men when tall tales fall apart.

But the media spin, abetted by a few of the Chicken Little conservatives, continues that the sky has fallen on Mr. Romney and the race is over. These pundits cite some polls, ignore others, and are too busy clucking agreement with the spin to look carefully at how the pollsters measure public opinion. Joining the Hullabaloo is more fun than lonely hard work.

A little of such work reveals how most of the polls are skewed. No reputable pollster deliberately cooks the numbers; he would quickly put himself out of business if he did. But he can work with out-of-date assumptions and stale numbers in getting to those numbers.

To take a poll, a pollster first builds a model, a pool of voters to reflect the voting population. He uses the results of the previous election, or elections, to identify and select the voters to put in his demographic pool. He has to be careful in adjusting the percentages. Telephone surveys, if he is not careful, for example, would have too few blacks, Hispanics and young voters in the sample because many voters in those categories have no landline phones – calling cell phones skews the result in other ways – or because those voters are often not at home or don’t speak English and are difficult (or impossible) to interview. The elderly are easily overstated because they’re usually at home and have time to talk. So the pollster “weights” the numbers by arbitrarily adding or subtracting voters from certain categories.

“Ordinarily,” says Dick Morris, who invented Bill Clinton with his uncannily accurate measurements of voter sentiment, first in Arkansas and then for the rest of the nation, “this task is not difficult. Over the years, black, Latino, young and the elderly proportion of the electorate has been fairly constant from election to election, except for a gradual increase in the Hispanic vote. You just need to look back at the [previous] election to weight your polling numbers for this one.”

Pitfalls abound. Black voters, based on previous elections, typically cast 11 percent of the vote in presidential elections. Four years ago they made up 14 percent of the vote. Young voters doubled their vote from 2004 to 2008. Yet nearly all pollsters are basing their models for this year on the 2008 vote. Nearly all of them, however, find a large “enthusiasm gap” between Obama voters, discouraged by high unemployment and disappointed by his performance, and the Romney voters. Many Romney voters are lukewarm about their candidate but red-hot about the prospect of defeating Mr. Obama.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

A new website, unskewedpolls.com, attempts to redefine the data used by pollsters against actual voting results from both 2004 and 2008. Once crunched, their numbers show a Romney lead between 5 and 11 points. These numbers might not be “unskewed” so much as “differently skewed.” But they might be more accurate – or at least a warning that despite Chicken Little’s hysteria, the fat lady has not sung.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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