Political polls: today’s junk journalism

WASHINGTON — Entering 2012, President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects are essentially a 50-50 proposition, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

That’s the first sentence of today’s political poll, which was printed in newspapers across the country. Did it tell you anything that you didn’t already know from last week’s political poll? The story goes on to tell us that Americans are unhappy with the way Obama has handled the economy. Really? The AP spent money on this?

It’s not just AP that is throwing away money. It’s the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and all the TV networks. I’ve always thought that most of the political polls were just handicapping a horse race that wasn’t going to occur for another year. That is to say junk journalism.

Now there is academic research to back me up.

That “likely-voter screen,” the battery of questions (Gallup’s contains seven of them) asking people how probable they are to vote, is a staple of just about every survey you see these days. “Public polls”—the ones that now pop up with metronomic regularity under the banner of news organizations and colleges—typically rely on such screens to filter likely voters from the much broader pool of people they get on the line by randomly dialing numbers. In their unpublished paper, Aida and Rogers poked big holes in the screen, suggesting in some cases it was no better than flipping a coin in determining who was likely to vote.

You know that coin? Imagine if the new media spent it doing real journalism, covering the news that affects people.

(Hat tip to Mark Binker.)