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Politics, Pollsters, and FOX News

Not everyone likes pollsters. I get that. But I think that they serve a helpful purpose in our culture. In part this is because I AM a pollster, albeit not one that makes it on Real Clear Politics. As a pollster and an evangelical Christian, several people have asked me to weigh in on polls and this election.

I’ve commented several times about the polls on Twitter and Facebook. (I am a researcher and, not surprisingly, I comment on polls.) On a couple of occasions, I pointed out that it was statistically unlikely for Governor Romney to pull off an upset. Also, when I simply listed the poll numbers indicating President Obama “won” the second and third debates, some screamed “no way” (among other things).

Each time, some folks went crazy, explaining how the stats are all biased, particularly the ones from “those bad people at CNN.” People questioned MY judgment and called me naive – some said I was GLAD President Obama was winning (though I did not support the President’s reelection). Yet, now that everything is over, it appears that my judgment was not the issue – but there are issues of judgment to consider here.

Pollsters work very hard to get things right. They did so in this election. Contrary to the angry conspiracy theorists, pollsters do not generally seek to influence the election (at least the credible ones, and those are the ones you see on the news). We even have a code of ethics we all follow – you can see what they asked, the sample methods, etc. And, to be honest, they all know they will be graded the day after the election.

Yet, some people were quite convinced that all the polls were lying. Furthermore, some made accusations about pollsters, including me for quoting them. That’s not helpful and makes you look like you don’t care about facts.

The most blatant display of this was when a number of people targeted one individual, Nate Silver. Nate is not really a pollster, per se; he doesn’t ask any questions. He is a statistician who analyzes information. He first started out in baseball and was quite successful, but in the last several years has turned his attention to politics, and analyzing election polls throughout the campaign season. You can see more about the model he uses here.

When Nate shared a prediction at his blog, a number of people who were hoping for a different outcome were outraged. They said there was no way he could predict what would happen. And while it is true that trends can change quickly, it is also true that statistics are a helpful tool in looking at the big picture. And in case you were wondering, his projections were right.

So, what can we learn about polls from this situation?

  1. Just because everyone YOU know thinks one way does not mean it is the majority. When everyone you know is voting for the same candidate you are, the polls can seem unbelievable. But as we saw in the final results, they were accurate.
  2. Making accusations can hurt your credibility. Facts are our friends. And, everyone had some similar facts here. The truth is that while everyone acknowledged the momentum gained after the first debate, Governor Romney never had a sustained lead in the swing states.
  3. People have selective memory – we can think, “But I saw when he was up in the battleground states!” Yes– in a few polls he was ahead, and those were given prominence on The Drudge Report. But, that was never consistent in the majority of polls.

So, the reality is that we WANT to believe the polls that agree with our own positions–and in a similar way, we tend to think that all others are biased, have the wrong sample, or are driven by an agenda. After the barrage of tweets I received after quoting two polls saying that President Obama won a debate, I tweeted: 

Only trust polls supporting what you believe! All others are biased, the wrong sample, or deeply flawed.” -Mr Human Nature

To complicate things further, in this particular election, a number of conservative pundits who have gained the trust of millions of viewers and listeners made this very mistake.

In the first debate, Mitt Romney landed one of many zingers when he said, “Mr. President, you’re entitled to your own airplane, your own house, but not your own facts.” It was a good one that night, but we have to recognize that this is a truth that applies to everyone. Neither side can afford to believe their own hype, but that is exactly what we are often prone to do.

Some said that Romney would win in a “landslide” and others said he would win “handily.” Many wanted to believe it, particularly when it was widely reported and discussed on Fox News. Now that the dust has settled, the question naturally comes: How could this have happened when the statistics said something else? (I thought that John Ziegler, a conservative commentator, gave a helpful analysis of that very question here.)

I share this concern so I tweeted this on Tuesday night, about Fox News:

Obama reelected. For those shocked this wasn’t a Romney landslide, I’d broaden your news viewing beyond @FoxNews.

The tweet was retweeted hundreds of times (and “liked” hundreds more on Facebook) – which seemed to make the point that it is a widespread concern. However, the response from many others was just fascinating. Now, I was not surprised that some people might not see it the same way. As a matter of fact, we did our own poll a couple of years ago in which 47% of Protestant pastors viewed Fox News as the most accurate and fair of the seven organizations in covering news, more than any other broadcast news outlet. What did surprise me, however, was the tone.

I don’t have a problem with disagreement, but it appears that some have confused their faith with Fox News – for some, to question the judgment of Fox News cannot be tolerated if you are an evangelical Christian. However, some on Fox News did not serve their viewers well by promoting the myth that polls were biased. I am not saying they are evil, but they were wrong – and some are admitting it now.

The truth is that I enjoy Fox News. I’ve watched Huckabee for awhile, since spending some time with him a few years back. And, since O’Reilly and I grew up in the same hometown, I confess a certain appreciation for his banter. However, if you love Fox News more than you love facts, it undermines your credibility, and I think that is evident in the discussion all over the media today. I’m saddened that many Christians are being included in the groups that “create their own facts.”

I get that CNN leans left (and MSNBC leans hard left), but you have to recognize that Fox News leans right – and consider their reporting in that light. This time, some “leaned” their facts as well, and that did not help anyone.

The question is not whether the networks are biased. I think they all are, on both sides, but polls are generally not, and facts should not be ignored because of a particular channel.

As a voter, I follow my convictions when I walk into the voting booth– and I’ve expressed my concern about the results of this election. But as a researcher, I value statistics as a tool and believe that we should use them. I am committed to maintaining integrity in research, but this works both ways. If we start pointing to data that doesn’t line up with our desires and calling it false, then nothing can be trusted and no one is helped.

I am going to move on from the election theme now, but my hope is that we can tone down the rhetoric (not just with those who have opposing views, but also with each other). I think we need to do better next time by not calling pollsters liars and not believing the unbelievable – even when it is on Fox News.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and he has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. He serves at his local church, Highpoint Church, as a teaching pastor. Dr. Stetzer is currently living in England and teaching at Oxford University.