Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Snap polls do matter--just not as polls

It's late and my head isn't feeling so great, so this will be quick.  But there's something that's been bugging me since the end of the debate and I want to get it off my chest.

The irritating idea is pretty much summed up by this Greg Sargent tweet:

Sargent is especially determined to remind us that snap polls "tell us nothing"; he tweeted something to that effect no fewer than seven times.  But other pundits on the left are saying the same, and although I don't follow nearly as many right-pundits, I bet they're even more eager to remind us that snap polls don't matter, given how ugly the initial results were for Romney.

And to cautious media figures with an understanding of statistics, I'm sure nothing could seem more perfectly obvious.  Snap polls about "who won" aren't likely to be terribly accurate (results vary massively between polls, which should be evidence enough of their unreliability).  Even if you could determine which candidate America believed won the debate, there's simply no way of knowing if lots or a few or any voters will move to the winning side as a consequence. So that's that, right?  The only way to find out who won is to wait and see.  The polls tell you nothing.

But wait a second.  The polls tell you nothing about what?  They tell you nothing about what people  who watched the debate, but have heard no media coverage of the debate, think about the debate.  But the demographic of "people who watched the debate, but have heard no media coverage of the debate," is completely unimportant--primarily because it starts shrinking the moment the debate ends, and will shrink nearly to nonexistence by the time the election is held.

By contrast, that demographic's counterpart--people who have heard media coverage of the debate--will continue to grow until the day of the election.  It will eventually encompass the vast majority of voters.  So what's really important here is not predicting how the debate, standing alone, will impact the views of voters, but how the debate, and its aftermath, will impact the views of voters.

And towards that end, the snap polls are very important.  Not because they're necessarily scientifically accurate, but because their rough gauge of voter sentiment will give a cue to the media on how to report the debate.  Obama win, Romney win, draw, whatever.  And then that view will color all subsequent coverage of the debate.  And soon enough, lots of voters who didn't exactly "watch" the debate will be able to tell you what happened, because CNN will have told them, because the snap polls told CNN.  And even the people that did watch the debate will be reminded of the moments that reinforce the outcome that the snap polls have found to have occurred, and soon, those moments will be mostly what they remember too.  And pundits and reporters will start using shorthand to refer to the debate--"The first debate, which Romney won," or "The second debate, mostly remembered for BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN"--and the actual diverse range of responses and reactions reflected in the snap polls will be smoothed into a single media-approved take, which, I suspect, probably will not be "There were many diverging opinions about who came off more favorably, roughly forming a bell curve with its peak over +16 Obama."

So would Sargent be correct in decrying the conspiracy of silence by CNN and its cohort, in which everyone pretends that snap polls are a deeply meaningful glance into the collective American consciousness?  Absolutely he would.  But is he right to say the snap polls tell us nothing?  Absolutely not.  They tell us a tremendous amount about the range of possible reactions to this debate going forward.  In fact, I find Sargent's view a little disturbing, because it suggests a deeply distorted view of American politics and his own role in it.  It pretends that what really matters is the opinion of a fictional mass of undecided Americans, which he appears to conceive as a passive entity that sits down in front of a TV for 90 minutes, watches Mitt and Barack verbally punch it out, makes a decision, and is done with this whole "election" thing.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I'm sure it's easier for the press to pretend it's watching the crowd watch the show... but in reality, the crowd is watching the press watch the crowd watch the press watch the crowd watch the show.  The press wishing otherwise won't make the situation any less complicated.

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