Like any good political news junkie, I've been devouring the coverage in the lead-up to the November midterms, checking as many sources as are willing to update: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, LA Times, Talking Points Memo, Time, Newsweek...et cetera, et cetera. The message conveyed in the aggregate coverage is that the American public is either turned off to, or confused by, the Democratic policies, and the Republicans could possibly take both chambers of congress.
And how do we know all this? Because the polls tell us so.
Of course, there are plenty of personal stories cropping up in the coverage: the Independent voter who tells a reporter that she's disappointed in President Obama's performance and is voting Republican, or the unemployed father who is so frustrated by the bleak job market and wants to give Congress a wake-up call, or the Tea Party rallies. These stories are all valid indicators of the political climate, and they certainly could be used to support the notion that things look bad for the Democrats.
Yet, I can't help but wonder what impact weeks and months of "Democratic support collapses, Republicans poised for historic November wave" stories have on the psyche of the voters. If the majority of the coverage in news reports and articles include the latest polling that says the Republicans are leading by X points in a generic ballot, or point out that the public is rushing away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans, does that potentially influence how people will vote come election day? [To be equal opportunity here, I'll add that I wondered the same thing in 2008, when the coverage in the closing weeks suggested that McCain had an exceptionally steep hill to climb if he was going to squeak out a win].
Pollsters and journalists alike are often quick to add a caveat that polls are only a snapshot in time, and are not infallible in their predictive power. Fair enough, but if the majority of the coverage of a particular race or election cycle essentially sends the message that a candidate is way ahead/struggling in the polls, does the coverage itself unduly influence how people perceive that candidate?
I started thinking about this after coming across an old Boston Globe article from January 10, nine days before the special election to fill Ted Kennedy's senate seat. The article centered on Martha Coakley's strong 15 point lead in the latest polling, her strong support across the state, and then went on to suggest that, while a Scott Brown victory wasn't impossible, it would be very surprising at that point. Yet in the final week of the campaign, as her lead unquestionably began to shrink, the tone of the coverage changed from "Coakley appears headed to victory" to "Coakley's support is collapsing, Brown is surging."
I wonder: did the fact that people were almost exclusively reading "Coakley's lead collapsing" articles in that final week help create a self-fulfilling prophecy? And as we head into the closing weeks of the national midterms, with constant reminders of the likely Republican "wave," could this be happening again?
It's something to ponder, and I don't know what the alternatives would be. I certainly wouldn't suggest that journalists ignore polls, but I do wonder how we can report/digest the news, without being subtly influenced in our decision-making....?