My pet peeve (for today)

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles ) | Sep 23, 2003

The 2004 campaign season is already beginning, and we can expect to see plenty of stories about public-opinion surveys. In an extraordinary number of cases, reporters will mangle the meaning of the polls.

This particular story is taken from the Boston Herald, but you can find similar errors in newspapers every day.

The retired four-star Army Gen. Clark, showing surprising strength after joining the race just last week, led Bush 49-46 percent-- a statistical dead heat given the poll's three-point margin of error.


The poll showed Clark leading Bush by 3%. Assuming that the poll is accurate to within 3% (a very big assumption), that means the margin could be off by 3% in either direction. Maybe it's a dead heat. Then again, maybe Clark is actually leading by 6%!

Now here's the next point: What does that "margin of error" really mean? The presidential election is almost 14 months away, so it doesn't even make sense to speculate on what would happen if the ballots were cast tomorrow. The poll doesn't predict any result at all, so "accuracy" shouldn't even be an issue.

Something to keep in mind: A shrewd political campaign manager will know how to read an interpret polls. But the campaign's PR mouthpiece probably won't; his job is to make the candidate look good, regardless of the statistics. Reporters generally get their information from the PR agents. There's an old computer-programming term to describe the typical newspaper analysis of campaign polls: GIGO.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Sep. 23, 2003 10:14 PM ET USA

    The Bush-haters [and they really are HATERS] are playing with, and trumpeting, polls, hoping thereby to erode the President's support. What they crave is to have a Clintonite in the White House, to open up the flood-gates to unlimited abortion, perversion, promiscuity, euthanasia, cloning, and all the rest of Pandora's evil Hell-box. It's one thing to have legitimate disagreements with the Pres., like Phil does. What most of the [vicious]media are now up to is quite a different thing !

  • Posted by: - Sep. 23, 2003 9:26 PM ET USA

    I suggest that readers look at today's "Best of the Web" by James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal online. He examines these figures and finds the poll was skewed and biased in favor of non-voters and Democrats. And Mr. Lawler is right to note that this is September 2003 not 2004 and Wesley Clark may be a footnote in twelve months.