Why Is The Media Picking Sides On Polling?

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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On June 25, the results of two polls of likely New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary voters were published by their sponsors: CNN-WMUR and Bloomberg/Saint Anselm College. The polls were conducted during the same time period (the prior week), with a similar total sample of Democratic likely voters (about 400) and the same approximate margin of error (plus or minus 5 percentage points).

The CNN poll showed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) by 8 percentage points, 43 percent to 35 percent — i.e., within the margin of error.

The Bloomberg poll had Clinton leading by 32 percentage points — 56 percent to 24 percent — way beyond the margin of error.

You might guess that the results would have received comparable attention from the mainstream media.

Guess again.

The media attention to the CNN poll — in print, on the Internet, among talking heads on cable and broadcast TV — was overwhelming; the Bloomberg poll results were virtually ignored and always downplayed.

Some explained this disparity in media coverage because there were two earlier New Hampshire polls that showed Sanders within 10 percent to 12 percent of Clinton — Bloomberg’s sample must have been flawed, they said.

But that doesn’t excuse virtually ignoring the Bloomberg poll results.

In fact, recent polls in Iowa (albeit, a different state) are closer to the Bloomberg results than the CNN ones. In the July 2 Quinnipiac poll, Clinton leads by 19 points among likely Iowa caucus-goers; in the July 9 WBUR/WAA poll, she leads among likely caucus-goers by a whopping 43 points.

This is why RealClearPolitics is still the most reliable place to check for polls, because RCP averages polls over a 30-day period. The current average shows Clinton with a 15.5-point lead over Sanders in New Hampshire.

A quick check of the headlines if you do a Web search for “New Hampshire June 25 Democratic polls” shows the level of bias in the coverage of the two polls. To cite just a few of hundreds similar: “Polls show Bernie-mentum in Iowa and New Hampshire” (Politico); “Hillary Clinton’s lead over N.H. Democrats dwindling, poll finds” (CNN); “Bernie Sanders surges in New Hampshire polls” (Huffington Post).

Even Bloomberg found a way to write a Clinton-negative headline about its poll showing her up 32 percent (I swear, I am not making this up): “Bernie Sanders gains on Hillary Clinton in Bloomberg early-state polling.”

The same pattern of pro-Sanders bias is apparent in the reporting of poll results on personal characteristics.

There was much breathless punditry on the CNN poll result that showed that Clinton was rated as “least honest” by 28 percent of the sample. But virtually ignored by media and pundits were additional data in the same CNN poll that Clinton led Sanders by 11 percentage points as to who has the “personal characteristics and qualities that you think a President should have.”

A week later, the Quinnipiac poll of 716 Iowa caucus-goers with a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points found that 75 percent saw Clinton as “honest and trustworthy,” about the same as the 71 percent for Sanders. Yet these data too were virtually ignored, by the same reporters who continued to raise questions about Clinton’s alleged “trust problems” as compared to the Vermont independent — as recently as last week.

Most of the media ignored substantially higher ratings in both New Hampshire polls in favor of Clinton over Sanders on handling top issues as well.

In the CNN poll, Clinton was rated substantially higher than Sanders on handling the economy (37 percent 28 percent), terrorism (45 percent to 11 percent), international trade policy (55 percent to 14 percent) and healthcare policy (43 percent to 27 percent). In the Bloomberg poll, the former secretary edged the senator on having the “foreign policy experience to navigate a dangerous world” (+76 points), on knowing “how to get things done in Washington” (+52 points) and on who can “beat the Republican nominee in the general election” (+59 points).

Also largely unreported are the most recent CNN general election poll results (conducted June 26-28 and published July 1), showing Clinton up 13 percentage points over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 17 points over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, 19 points over both Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and 25 points over Donald Trump. These are significant increases over prior polls — appearing to belie the media’s conventional wisdom that Clinton was seriously politically damaged by the constant barrage of negative stories regarding her emails and Clinton Foundation donors issues.

So what is going on here?

I know the fact that Bernie Sanders is undoubtedly gaining support is more newsworthy than Hillary Clinton being in the lead. I get that. Sanders has shown strength with the progressive base, attracting large crowds and impressively articulating a populist message. That’s a good story. I for one would not be surprised if Sanders won or did very well in both Iowa and New Hampshire, especially the latter. After all, Sanders is from the New Hampshire’s neighboring state of Vermont. I believe that no candidate from a New England state in recent years from either party has lost the New Hampshire primary other than the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980.

But is it possible that something else is at issue here? That the mainstream media just might be motivated, however unconsciously, to create a contest on the Democratic side, with more drama and a tighter race — and incidentally more column inches, more air time, more “breaking news” trailers and higher ratings?

If so, I would be as shocked, shocked, as when gambling was discovered in Rick’s casino.

Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, LEVICK. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).