Tuesday, May 26, 2009

“If The Polls Are To Be Believed…”

Did you ever notice that polls seem to be subject to more journalistic skepticism than other numbers? Perhaps it’s because there are so many polls available, and of such varying quality, that it’s easy to compare and contrast differences.

On the other hand, nearly all other statistics – especially those from “official” sources – are accepted prima facie. For example, the media ran unquestioningly with a Social Security Administration story about the dramatic increase in baby boys being named Barack, although a simple journalistic inquiry would have quickly deflated that claim. Also, every press story about autism in New Jersey now includes the tag that New Jersey has the highest autism rate in the nation. However, this claim is based on a study that was done, not nationally, but in only 14 states – and even the comparability of those state results is suspect. (I’ll be blogging more about this issue in a few weeks.)

Not that I’m arguing for less scrutiny of polls – far from it. My main concern is that while basic questions about all numbers go unasked before being reported to the public, it seems that only with polls do the media express doubt on the veracity of the numbers they themselves report, many times with banner headlines.

On NJN’s Reporters Roundtable this past weekend, one panelist after another – including a reporter from Monmouth’s own media partner – used the phrase, “if the polls are to be believed.” They were discussing the New Jersey GOP gubernatorial primary and, specifically, Chris Christie’s large lead over Steve Lonegan in polls released by Monmouth/Gannett and Quinnipiac last week.

Skepticism of election polls – as with any number provided for public consumption – is extremely healthy. Polls are designed to capture a snapshot of attitudes and behaviors at the time they are taken. And indeed, we tend to see a lot of consistency among reliable polls on “here-and-now” measures (e.g. a politician’s job performance rating). However, polls are imperfect tools when asked to predict the future, such as an election outcome. Yet they work reasonably well and are the best tools we’ve got – so we use them.

What concerns me about the “if polls are to be believed” line is that there tends to be little discernment about why one should or shouldn’t believe the polls. And that’s because there is a tendency to evaluate election polls only in their capacity to predict outcomes. Among the five journalists on RR, I recall only one actually discussing a poll finding other than the top-line “horse race” results.

There’s such a media fascination with the horse race numbers that it’s easy to shoot down polls as insubstantial, if in fact that was all the polls were asking about. However, some polls actually do strive to go beyond the vote intention question to understand the dynamics of the electorate.

Monmouth/Gannett’s GOP primary poll included 19 questions about the campaign. But media outlets tended to report only the horse race results, or at most, the results of one or two additional questions.

In fact, the poll included a wealth of information that could help shape media coverage of the campaign and indeed make that coverage more relevant to voters’ actual concerns. For example, in poll after poll, property taxes is named by New Jersey voters as the number one issue they want to hear the gubernatorial candidates talk about. However, less than half of the GOP primary electorate say they have heard any of the candidates articulate a plan on this issue, or indeed on just about any of the issues voters consider to be important.

Perhaps the media could better serve its readers and viewers by pressing the candidates more to address these issues rather than focus on horse race and strategy. That is, of course, if the polls are to be believed.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Hook to Hang Your Hat On

That’s a phrase I keep coming back to during this year’s gubernatorial race. And last night’s televised debate between Chris Christie and Steve Lonegan – who are vying for the Republican nomination for New Jersey Governor – only increased my sense that at least one candidate is not giving voters a hook to hang their hats on.

It’s clear from every poll in the past year, that most voters in New Jersey are disinclined to give Governor Jon Corzine another four years on the job. In the Republican field, Chris Christie has been positioning himself as the most electable contender in a state that trends solidly Democratic. Based on his campaign rhetoric, his main qualification appears to be that he showed how “tough” he can be as U.S. Attorney and he will be equally “tough” as governor.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough to make many voters – even Republican primary voters who are desperate for a general election win – feel comfortable enough to support him. He needs to give them a commitment on at least one salient issue – with salient being the key word – so they can say to their friends, “I’m voting for Christie because he’s going to fix X.” In other words, he needs to give voters a hook to hang their hats on.

The first question in last night’s debate offered the perfect opportunity. It was about property taxes, which is New Jersey voters’ #1 concern by far. Unfortunately, both candidates avoided offering specifics on how they would bring down property taxes. Basically, they said would do all sorts of other things right, e.g. cut spending, etc. This, we are led to believe, would somehow lead school districts and local governments to lower their tax rates. That may be so, but you’ve got to connect the dots to convince voters.

In other areas, Steve Lonegan did offer a number of specific ideas. Obviously, the flat tax is his central platform issue. And when asked what he would cut in state government, Lonegan named five departments he would eliminate or consolidate. Now, you can argue how much money that will actually save, but at least he made a specific commitment.

Christie did a good job hammering Lonegan’s flat tax proposal – basically that it would actually raise income taxes on most New Jersey families – thus undermining the credibility of Lonegan’s “hook” a bit. However, when asked to describe his own plans, Christie was less compelling.

Christie said he would use zero-based budgeting and the line-item veto, but did not specify which budget lines he would strike out. His hallmark tax reduction plan is to require a legislative super-majority for future tax increases. Not exactly the kind of stuff that’ll make voters to sit up and take notice.

It’s like walking into a Baskin-Robbins and finding the only flavors they’ve got are Pistachio Almond, Cotton Candy, and Rum Raisin. Sure, some people may really like those flavors. But for most people, the choices are nothing to get excited about.

The candidates did agree on some other policy areas. They support school vouchers, although there were some differences in how they would be applied. Neither would re-appoint any of the sitting Supreme Court justices up for tenure during the next four years (although a question about re-appointing Chief Justice Stu Rabner, a former Christie protege, made for an intersting moment).

Of course, the bottom line is whether any of their core proposals can get passed by a Democratically controlled legislature (and that’s not going to change next year, regardless of who wins at the top of the ticket). On that score, Christie is probably more realistic. Lonegan’s flat tax proposal will go nowhere in Trenton, whereas the line-item veto may be a Republican governor’s only real power.

Still, you should be able to specify which lines you will veto so the voters who are inclined to support you have some hook to hang their hats on.

That being said, the winner of this debate was Lonegan on points.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Barack Baby Boom Bupkus

The internet is burning up today with new numbers out of Washington. No, it's not the the bank stress test results or new stimulus spending. It's the Social Security Administration's annual report of America's most popular baby names.

One major highlight of the report (and the item most media outlets jumped on is that: "Barack moved up a record 10,126 places to No. 2,409." Actually, the SSA press release said that it was "probably" a record jump on the list, but we shouldn't let that stand in the way. This is big news -- our president has inspired a Barack Baby Boom!

The problem is that no reporters seem to have inquired just what the "Barack" jump from #12,535 in 2007 to #2,409 in 2008 actually represents in terms of raw numbers. Well, I did. And according to an email I just received from the SSA press office, the number of boys who were named Barack in 2008 was 52! That represents an increase from the 5 Baracks named in 2007.

[As a side note, these figures are approximate. The press rep said she was "uncertain of the precise number." Huh? It's not like I asked them to track down the TARP funds!]

At any rate, about 50 boys were named "Barack" in 2008 --- out of more than 2.1 million boy names registered with the Social Security last year. That means "Barack" represents a grand total of 0.0024% of all boy names in 2008, up from 0.00023% the year before. [And yes, the decimal points are in the right place.]

To put this in perspective, the most popular name boy name last year was Jacob, accounting for 22,272 registrations with Social Security. The 50th most popular boy name was Aaron at 8,423, while Eli popped in at #100 with 4,445 registrations. In fact, to make it onto the SSA website's list of the top 1,000 names, you only needed to have 191 co-namees (I'm talking about you, Yurem!).

All of which leaves me wondering why the SSA never reported on the Boutros Boutros-Gali boomlet of the early 90s.

This is #127 signing off.