This paper was presented August 7, 2016 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Annual Conference in Minneapolis, Minn. An early version was presented February 27, 2016 at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Midwinter Conference in Norman, Okla.
The 2016 presidential campaign has been unique thus far, to say the least. It makes the 2012 cycle look downright boring. Yet, one aspect of the 2012 campaign that stood out to me was the use of public opinion polling by media to frame the race. Leading up to Election Day, it seemed pretty clear that President Obama would have the electoral votes to win a second term. Election forecasting guru Nate Silver thought so, and most polling data agreed.
However, a completely different picture was painted in conservative media – at least in a few anecdotal instances. Fox News contributor Dick Morris infamously predicted a “landslide” victory for Mitt Romney, while Karl Rove’s refusal to accept Obama’s victory-sealing win in Ohio made for awkward Election Night coverage for the cable news ratings leader. Both had evidence on their side – poll numbers that made it look like Romney was indeed going to win Ohio and the White House. But those polls were in the minority, and they were wrong.
This matters. Previous research suggests that publishing of public opinion polls can actually influence public opinion, and eventually, voting. To be fair, these findings have always been tough to untangle. Does a poll showing a candidate with a big lead create a bandwagon effect where everyone wants to vote for the inevitable winner, or does it spur an underdog effect in which the losing candidate’s supporters mobilize to close the gap? Does depicting a close race boost turnout, while voters skip out on a projected blowout? There’s evidence of all of these. Continue reading “Sunday morning talk shows and portrayals of public opinion during the 2012 presidential campaign”