A Buttigieg bump. Senator Elizabeth Warren surging. President Donald Trump trailing in key states. It seems like every day there is a new polling narrative taking shape in the media.
Unfortunately, these polling narratives in the media are hastily drawn and misleading, and the media ought to be more careful with its reporting.
This is not to say that the media should stop reporting on the horse race. It is certainly their job to tell audiences about political news, and polling data can offer glimpses into what is happening in elections.
However, the media often fails in its goal to accurately inform readers of the trends in elections. Far too often, journalists and pundits draw rapid conclusions from polling that creates false narratives, leading their audience to be misinformed.
The so-called “Buttigieg Bump” serves as an example of this issue. Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He entered the 2020 race unknown to most outside of Indiana, but he quickly gained traction after a well-received performance at a CNN Town Hall. However, as Pete Buttigieg emerged from obscurity and catapulted to a household name among Democratic voters, some onlookers succumbed to a serious case of recency bias, greatly overestimating Buttigieg’s chances to win the Democratic nomination next year. Perhaps most strikingly, bettors on PredictIt pegged him as the favorite in mid-April (they now rate him as the sixth most likely candidate).
The exaggeration of the Buttigieg’s surge is far from the only example of suspect poll reporting from generally reputable sources. In the 2016 election, for instance, many journalists seemed to take it as a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton would win the election. In reality, the polls indicated a much tighter race, especially in several critical swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. In truth, Trump’s win was not nearly as shocking as some claimed it to be.
Anecdotally, the results of the 2016 election have sown doubts about the accuracy of polls in many people I know. In some ways, the situation is ironic. Overconfidence in our predictions has led us not to question our analysis, but rather claim that our data was faulty.
Ginger Hall, a fourth-year advertising and French major at the University of Georgia, believes that the media can often exaggerate the implications of small amounts of data with the goal to produce content.
“They’re like, ‘We don’t have anything to report on this, so we’re just going to try to write several articles about this one poll,’” Hall said. “How do you host an hour-long radio show about politics about one thing without repeating yourself?”
Though often criticized, horse race reporting can be genuinely helpful in studying elections. If journalists are not careful, however, the polls can be misinterpreted, leading to bad analysis. When looking at new polling data, the media must be more cautious in its framing to ensure that it delivers the most accurate reporting to its audience.