Friday, October 10, 2008

Media Bias in Polls?

I was watching some "news" on the boobtube today, and I had a thought. I don't remember the story the talking head was rambling about, but I remember the ticker at the bottom on the screen. The ticker mentioned that the Obama/Biden campaign had spent some of their campaign funds on 30 minutes of airtime from a couple networks. Now, that's a lot of prime time on a network. The last time someone did that, as far as I can remember, was billionaire Ross Perot back in 1991. One sure way to the American voter's short attention span, credulous heart is through his TV.

According to Open Secrets.org, the McCain campaign has raised almost $240M and the Obama campaign has raised $460M. For giggles, the next highest fund raising campaign is that of Ralph Nader (I) at $3M. McCain held to his promise to adhere to the rules to receive public financing. Obama, on the other hand, changed his mind, and is not abiding by the limits (lots of rich Hollywood liberals). I digress...the main purpose of this post is to talk about the media.

So, we have almost a billion dollars available to fund these campaigns not including the hundreds of millions being spent by special interest groups and the parties. Now, I realize that some of the money is spent on staff salaries, telemarketing, direct mail, get out the vote drives, food and travel expenses. I'm not sure exactly how much of this billion will be spent on television and newspaper advertising. Let's estimate that half of the campaign money is going to be spent on media, $500M, and that same amount is going to be spent on media by other groups for the presidential election. That will give us a billion to spend on TV ads. I have no idea if this number is correct, but I figure it's a pretty safe bet that WAY more is going to be spent. I saw one watchdog web site that said $4.5B will be spent on paper direct mailings alone. They didn't cite their sources, so I won't quote them here. Let's go with a cool billion for the media.

Ok, so now imagine yourself the owner of small or mid market TV station such as KSTP or WCCO here in Minneapolis. WCCO just laid off their expensive meteorologist and has mentioned that it will be real expensive to upgrade their local sets and camera to HD format. I can only assume that KSTP is in same boat. They are owned by Hubbard who is notorious as a cheap skate (have you seen their Viking's preseason coverage?).

If you are still with me....keep imagining that we are a small time TV station that needs money in the worst way, during a presidential campaign that is going to spend $1B on media. Hmmm. What do we do? We definitely want a share of this money. We already know that campaigns want to spend their money efficiently by targeting the states where they have a good chance to win. I think it was McCain that recently pulled out of Michigan. and Obama pulled out of North Dakota a while ago. Turns out the TV stations in those states are now fucked. No presidential campaign money for them. It should be obvious that we want to be in a highly contested market where both sides think they can win. A few weeks ago, here in Minnesota, the polls (media polls) show Obama and McCain in a statistical dead heat. The stories by the reporters also reflected this close battle. Within the last 2 weeks, both campaigns have dramatically increased their TV ads. I've even noticed that the commercial breaks during the "news" are longer by about 1-2 minutes and are almost all campaign ads...one right after the other. Sometimes it's hard to tell who "approved" what message because they are back to back.

Back in September, I received a phone call from a KSTP computer for a poll they were running. There was obvious bias in the methodology of this poll. The questions were all multiple choice...press 1 for Democratic candidate, press 2 for Republican and 3 for Independent or 4 for other. The bias was that after each question, the "press 1" answer was always a Democrat. This single call I received does not constitute a scientific analysis. That computer could be randomizing the order of the answers on a per call basis without my knowledge. I doubt it, but its plausible. So anyway, a poll like that will bias impatient Republicans and Independents to hang up prematurely.

In summary, lots of money will be spent on television advertising. TV stations are well motivated to capture as much of that as they can. There are polls with bias being conducted.

My question is: Can we trust a poll, or the reporting for that matter, by a local media outlet desperate for cash, who we know is going to make huge money on a contested election and nothing on a sure thing election?

Think about who is running the poll, who is talking about the poll, and what the error and bias could be in the poll. Look up the pollsters, try to find the actual questions.

One last caveat: imagine all the congressional campaigns, state campaigns and some local campaigns that are spending money this year.

PS: Years ago I received a call from a live person doing a poll. This person asked if I was in favor of killing babies. I said, of course I'm against killing babies (without good reason anyway). A few days later, a Minnesota "pro-life" group announced that they ran a poll that showed 90 something percent of Minnesotans were against abortion. (BTW who are the 1-9% who were in favor of baby killing?...)

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