Super Bust? Polls and the Problems with Infotainment

For the past eight years voters throughout the United States have encountered national polling problems. From the 2000 ‘hanging chad’ syndrome in Florida, to the 2004 poll lines and poor placements in Ohio, voters found that one of the most principle values in their country was, although present, poorly funded and poorly managed. 2008 is beginning to look no different.

As of February 10, 2008, there have been 34 Democratic primaries and 30 Republican primaries. Voters throughout these states experienced problems with their voting process, either in terms of placing their vote, or having it count. In one part of South Carolina, some of the 127,000 registered voters were turned away because of mechanical failures, which later were reportedly due to ‘human error.’. On Super Tuesday, eight precincts in Chicago suffered minor problems with machines and one precinct endured a two hour delay because of misplaced voting equipment, Georgian voters waited up to 90 minutes to place their vote, and the Governor of New Jersey was unable to cast his ballot at his registered location because of machine glitches and a non-existent repair-man. Part of the problem has been the enormous increase in voter turn out, particularly for the Democratic voters. Senator Barack Obama brought out over 290,000 voters in the South Carolina primary, which alone was equal to the overall Democratic count in the 2004 presidential election.

However, there is another culprit that seems to feed polling problems: the media. Major networks such as FOX, NBC and CNN have tapped into the political fervor in the United States, riding a way of debates and controversies that place international events and domestic affairs backstage to the presidential primaries. In many ways, the role of the media is reflective of the current times– the “infotainment” that permits news anchors to collect salaries in the millions. Nothing could be more exemplary of this phenomenon than Obama’s recent winning of a Grammy, displaying the convergence of politics and Hollywood. This new level of sensationalism and money in the media has provoked some to fault the media. Take, for instance, News Hounds, who in May 2006 printed an article entitled: “O’Reilly: NEWS or Infotainment?” Back in the days of Edward R. Murrow at CBS, networks provided news because it was required, and it was generally a loss of revenue for the network. It was not a money-making sensation. But does sensationalism hurt the political process? Certainly the increase amount of debates has allowed candidates more “free” national coverage and encourage more people to become part of the political process. Perhaps, in this way, it is the media that is partly responsible for the surge in voter turnouts. However, there is a dark side to this sensationalism as well. The push to declare victories or results before they have occurred.

The 2000 presidential elections is still fresh in many voters minds this year, with “botched projections” by major news stations on the race between Al Gore and George Bush. Many pundits speculated that early projections by the media have a significant impact on late voter habits and turnout. There is also the question of accuracy. The quick turnabout of predictions for New Hampshire raised the yellow flag for journalists. After the New England primary, Isabel Macdonald of the Huffington Post called on journalists to exercise extreme caution:

CNN commentator Gloria Borger, quoted by Rutenberg, chalked up the news outlets’ erroneous predictions to the fact that “the polls had it wrong because voters change sometimes at the last minute.” Yet journalists should in the first place approach the data they glean from polls with extreme caution.

Coverage of Super Tuesday seems to indicate that the media has not learned its lesson. Super Tuesday’s hype, in many ways, was a focus on the tight race between the two Junior Democratic senators. The sensationalism was so great that many people in the media like Grace Rauh compared Super Tuesday to the Superbowl. And with the intense hype networks like CNN offered “up to the minute” updates on the elections and websites like Politico.com uploaded national maps to display the individual primaries and how many delegates would go to the Republican and Democratic candidates. By the end of Super Tuesday, the delegates had been counted by the pundits. However, it was hard to find one news source that agreed with another. Then there was the bigger problem: most states on Super Tuesday would not be able to discern the specific amount of delegates for each candidate until days after the primary.

Unlike some of the Republican primaries on Super Tuesday that allowed the winner to “take all,” Democratic primaries split their delegates between candidates. Take for instance New Jersey where Senator Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in New Jersey with 54% and received 59 of New Jersey’s 107 delegates. Some states separated their delegates according to the overall popular vote while others retained delegates for the popular vote as well as individual county victories. California is one of these states with the ultimate cache of 441 delegates. Hillary Clinton was declared the winner of California before the end of Super Tuesday. The final results, according to all major news stations, had Hillary Clinton with 52% and Barack Obama with slightly over 42% of the overall vote. The only problem was that the counting was far from over.

It took New Mexico the rest of the week to count their votes and ultimately declare Hillary Clinton the winner of the popular vote, giving her 13 delegates and Barack Obama 12. New Mexico resisted the pull of the media’s infotainment and declined to declare a winner until they had counted all the votes. California, being the capital of Hollywood, appeared highly susceptible to the lure of sensationalism. Currently the official California State website echoes the media’s final standings, recording that with 100% of the precinct information in, Hillary Clinton finished with 405,759 more votes than Barack Obama. There is a slight problem with this claim, as over 20% of the votes have not been counted.

According to the Californian Secretary of State’s Office, as late as February 9 there were still over 845,000 unprocessed ballots. And these are only from the counties that have begun submitting their vote-by-mail and provisional ballots. There are still 18 counties that have not even begun submitting results, indicating that there could be over 1 million ballots still uncounted in the California Primary. In a state with 441 delegates awarded by both county victories and popular vote, a slight shift in voting trends could dramatically alter the political landscape for the Democratic Race, which has Clinton and Obama within 100 delegates of each other.

As the “Race for Delegates” continues, it appears as though the major networks are content with their early predictions, both for delegates and the Democratic Party’s “Superdelegates.” How much this influences voter turnout is yet to be determined. Yet, regardless of the results, it will be sensational.

  • Michael

    I was rightly corrected on three points in this commentary. While these do not detract from my overall argument, I think it is important to acknowledge. So the few corrections to disclose:

    1) I had mistakenly called Hillary Clinton a Freshman Senator. I had meant to say that both Clinton and Obama were Junior Senators.

    2) Some of the 127,000 registered voters were turned away in South Carolina, not all.

    3) Chicago’s eight precincts reported problems, but only one had missing equipment.