How ‘Freakonomics’ Can Help Explain Hyped PA Polls
A new poll shows President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tied at 47 percent in Pennsylvania. Conducted for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review by Susquehanna Polling and Research, the poll is being touted nationally as evidence Romney might actually win Pennsylvania.
The only problem? As we’ve stated before, Susquehanna is a GOP-centric polling firm. Their numbers have consistently favored Romney more than any other firm in the state, and the only that has ever shown him winning. They are an outlier. And yet, they’re all the conservative media is talking about. They’re the ones making national headlines.
Coincidence? Probably not.
The Susquehanna poll, like the Romney campaign’s recent moves in Pennsylvania, may be a sort of ‘Hail Mary pass,’ by the GOP. The right-wing media may be attempting to only lead their readership to the fake polls with the idea that if enough people see them, they’ll become true. As for everyone else: The media loves a good horserace until the end.
As Matt Taibbi wrote for Rolling Stone on Tuesday, “Banning poll numbers would force the media to actually cover the issues. As it stands now, the horse race is the entire story—I can think of a couple of cable networks that would have to go completely dark tomorrow … if they had to come up with even 10 seconds of news content that wasn’t centered on who was winning.”
As for the voters, the sudden push and corresponding conservative polls can probably be explained by a November 2011 episode of Freakonomics Radio. Host and New York Times columnist Stephen Dubner talks to professors at Yale University who are looking into something called “Cultural Cognition.” It’s a project specifically looking at hot button social and political issues around the country and how our opinions on these issues are formed. The conclusion they came to: Your opinions are based on where you live. All politics is local. Red states, blue states, whatever.
But one way to change the local conversation, might be to nationalize the local news. It’s likely part of the final push to build momentum inside Pennsylvania — since Ohio now looks out of reach for the Romney campaign. And according to the Cultural Cognition theory, the combination of an ad blitz, internal polls and national headlines may be the combination the GOP thinks it needs to win. If the media keeps saying Romney is winning or tied when he is not, enough voters may decide to vote or even change their vote to Romney. So this interpretation of the idea goes.
“We like to think that we make up our minds about important issues based on our rational, unbiased assessment of the available facts,” notes Dubner. “But the evidence … shows that our beliefs, even about something as scientifically oriented as climate change, are driven by a psychological need to fit in.”
Releasing internal polls tells readers there are others like them out there. And they push a certain storyline. For instance, look at what Susquehanna has shown us over the last few months. First, they said the polls were closer than the nonpartisan analysts would want you to believe. Then, they said Romney is winning (and therefore, can win the state). Now, they’re saying the race is tied—so you Republicans better get out and vote.
No political media consultant could dream of writing a narrative like that. Luckily, they have the numbers to do it for them.