Friday, September 11, 2009

Glass Half Full

Last night, the Public Policy Institute of California released a report entitled Californians and their Government, which published the results of a comprehensive statewide survey. The 37th in this series of PPIC reports, the survey examines the social, economic, and political trends that influence public policy preferences and ballot choices. In the spirit of its release, today’s posting will investigate how polling data is perceived by the public, and utilized to the benefit or detriment of statewide issue and candidate campaigns.

While organizations such as PPIC claim they are committed to “independent, objective, nonpartisan research,” there have been several instances over the past few weeks of California survey results gone awry. One such occasion included a poll conducted by Daily Kos, a national political website with self-proclaimed liberal tendencies. The website’s polling data indicated that Attorney General Jerry Brown held a nine-point lead over rival primary candidate Gavin Newsome. Moments later, the San Francisco Chronicle posted this information on its political blog and speculated on its “narrowing” gap compared to the 20-point lead Brown held in June. The news then traveled three hours into the future when it was relayed through the Washington Post’s widely read horse-race blog “The Fix.” By close of business, these results had become commonly perceived knowledge around the country.

But the numbers were wrong. Whoops.

Poll results can be addictive, and a great measure of a campaign’s success (or lack thereof). America treats an off-year campaign year like pre-season football; as the “stats” become easier to check, websites and publications find a high degree of public attention given to these horse-race figures, and pounce upon the first whiff of fresh meat.

Even the highly neutral PPIC report was greeted with a cacophony of conflicting headlines. The San Francisco Chronicle analyzed poll results under the headline “Poll: Citizens satisfied with form of state government,” whereas the Los Angeles Times suggested a far more negative outlook of these numbers, reporting “Poll finds Californians don't trust state government.”

In an age of instant access to information, these analyses can have a highly significant impact on public perception of the state of affairs. The misinformation surrounding the Brown-Newsome race could compel both campaigns to sustain major blows to campaign coffers. The PPIC numbers could be interpreted a number of ways, depending on which publication one reads. As newspapers and other reputable sources scramble to stay alive against the more opinionated news blog sites, they may begin to rely on less scientific and reliable – less expensive – data.

Will there be a turning point? Will this lack of consistency change the public conversation and have a real impact on policy? In the mean time, the public should drink their glass half full – or empty – with a few grains of salt.

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