Should we even bother to pay attention to presidential polls?

2016 taught us that polls can be misleading. And 2020 has taught us that we can't even pretend to know what will happen in five months.

June 25, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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Just two weeks ago, a CNN poll of the November presidential election had Joe Biden leading President Donald Trump by such a wide margin (14 points) that the Trump campaign demanded an apology and threatened to sue CNN.

A few days later, a Fox News poll showed Biden with a 50-38 lead.

Then on Wednesday, a New York Times/Siena College poll showed Biden with a healthy 50-36 lead. The Times wrote, “Mr. Trump has been an unpopular president for virtually his entire time in office. He has made few efforts since his election in 2016 to broaden his support beyond the right-wing base that vaulted him into office with only 46 percent of the popular vote and a modest victory in the Electoral College.”

Here we go again.

If 2016 taught us anything, it’s how unreliable the polls can be, especially when it comes to a wild card such as Donald Trump. Polls in 2016, perhaps skewed by those who would not admit they were voting for Trump, showed he would lose to Hillary Clinton. But here we are, nearly four years later, and Trump is in the White House.

That’s why noted pollster Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, said on ABC’s “This Week” that Trump can “absolutely win” in November despite Silver debuting his poll that showed Biden with a nine-point lead. That’s because, just like in 2016, Silver is looking at national polling even though it’s the Electoral College that will decide the presidential election.

Silver points out that Biden’s lead in swing states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania is closer than his national lead. In addition, Minnesota could be up for grabs and Silver notes that there has been no polling since the protests after George Floyd was killed.

On the other hand, Trump is struggling, according to Silver, in places that helped him win in 2016: Michigan and Florida. Already, you can start doing the math, seeing a path for Biden in which he routs Trump by taking Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Arizona. Or maybe Trump rallies and stuns the world again.

But here’s the thing: Does any of this polling even matter? Should we even be paying attention?

It’s JUNE!

The election is five months away. In 2020 time that’s like, what, five years?

Just think about how much has changed in the past five months.

Back in January, we assumed one of the keys to the election would be Russia’s role in the 2016 election, and Trump’s impeachment.

Then came the coronavirus.

Then came the economic crisis.

Then came the protests and big discussions about race in America.

Suddenly, Russia is all but forgotten. Topics that dominated the Democratic debates and that we assumed would be major talking points leading up to November — immigration and the climate — are hardly being discussed these days. We can guess that this election will center on three topics: the coronavirus, the economy and race. But that’s a guess. We can’t be sure. Five months ago, who could’ve guessed where we’d be now?

Audiences love to follow the horse race, which is why media outlets give them horse races. But they can be greatly misleading. Again, that’s what 2016 taught us.

Besides, what is true today might not be true in November. That’s what 2020 has taught us.

The rest of the story

Driver Bubba Wallace walks to his car in the pits of the Talladega Superspeedway on Monday. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Bubba Wallace/NASCAR story took another turn. Over the weekend, a noose was found hanging in the garage that Wallace, the only Black driver on NASCAR’s top circuit, was using at Talladega. But the FBI determined the noose had been there since last fall, well before anyone knew Wallace would use that garage.

Now there are those jumping on the story as if to dismiss all of NASCAR’s problems dealing with race. For example, a chyron that ran during Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News: “Yet Another Hate Crime Hoax.” (What an awful chyron, by the way.)

The horrible part is Wallace is now getting blowback.

In a smart column in The Charlotte Observer, Matthew Stephens writes, “Blame NASCAR. Blame media outlets. Blame America. But don’t blame Bubba Wallace. He’s the only person here who isn’t at fault after three unforgettable days at Talladega that serve as a reminder of not only the systemic racism that plagues our nation but conclusions it can lead us to.”

Appearing on Don Lemon’s CNN show, Wallace said, “Whether tied in 2019, or whatever, it was a noose.”

Cool customer of the day

Mediaite’s “Winner of the Day” on Wednesday was NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, and I wanted to piggyback on that by saying, yes, Mitchell was a real winner.

While Mitchell was getting ready to interview Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), a protester wearing only pink underwear, a bra and thigh-high socks ran aggressively at Mitchell and Norton. While another protester pulled that person away, Mitchell calmly moved her arms around Norton to protect her, but otherwise didn’t flinch. (Here’s the video showing Mitchell being a total cool customer.)

Vice TV’s new show

Jemele Hill. (Donald Traill/Invision/AP)

Former ESPN colleagues Jemele Hill and Cari Champion will host a new weekly talk show that will debut later this summer on Vice TV. “Disruptors with Jemele Hill and Cari Champion” will look at topics from the week, including culture, sports, politics and business. They told Variety’s Brian Steinberg they’ll be open to a wide range of guests.

Champion told Steinberg, “Two Black women are driving the narrative and the conversation.”

Champion was at ESPN for nearly a decade and is currently a broadcaster on NBC’s “The Titan Games” with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Hill was a long time journalist and on-air personality at ESPN before moving over to The Atlantic in 2018. For now, the show is set to have at least eight episodes.

A Post posting

As announced last week, The Washington Post is looking for a managing editor for diversity and inclusion. The Post posted the job opening Wednesday, writing, “The responsibilities will include greater diversity in our recruitment; full participation with other senior editors in final hiring and promotion decisions; acting as a convener of discussions across departments regarding coverage of race and identity; more inclusiveness in our coverage of people with different life experiences and perspectives; review of stories that involve sensitive subjects of race, ethnicity and identity; and listening to staff concerns on these issues and sharing them with others in the newsroom’s senior leadership.”

Media news

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer isn’t going to use the name of the National Football League team based in Washington. While there was no official policy during the time when I was with the Tampa Bay Times as a sports columnist, I had stopped using the nickname because I felt it was racist and demeaning, and was supported by the paper in that decision. More papers and media outlets should follow the Inquirer’s lead if the NFL or the team itself isn’t going to do away with this offensive name. By the way, the Inquirer’s ban on the nickname also applies to one of the local high schools. In a memo to staff, the Inquirer explained, “While generally we should not censor what teams call themselves, imagine another ethnic slur as part of a team name.”
  • Media writer Jeremy Barr announced on Twitter on Wednesday that he is leaving The Hollywood Reporter for The Washington Post.
  • Exciting project from Poynter’s MediaWise. It’s MediaWise for Seniors — teaching older Americans how to sort fact from fiction online.
  • The Investigative Reporters and Editors executive committee resigned in protest over the racial makeup of the committee. Its members then sent a letter to the board of directors — which you can read here — outlining their requests.
  • Best headline of the day comes from The Fresno Bee: “Devin Nunes Can’t Sue Twitter Over Statements By Fake Cow, Judge Rules.”
  • Check out the latest from Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds as he looks at what is happening at McClatchy with “In McClatchy Bankruptcy, a Deadline For Takeover Bids Is Imminent — But Retired Executives Are Pressing a Claim for Bigger Pensions.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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